When Gov. Mike Leavitt says nuclear waste will be stored in Utah's Skull Valley "over my dead body," you can hear the glee all the way from Caliente, Nev., to Riverton, Wyo.
If Utah's governor doesn't want it, there are plenty of other communities that are not only willing but eager to accept the tens of thousands of tons of highly radioactive waste. In a nutshell, they believe there are minimal risks to public health and huge economic returns to be had."I sure hope we don't miss an opportunity here," agrees state Sen. John Holmgren, R-Bear River. "These (spent nuclear fuel) rods are pretty safe to store, and we should be taking a positive look at this and see how we can get the most out of it."
With literally billions of dollars at stake, Holmgren believes Utah should look at supporting a nuclear waste dump somewhere along the railroad tracks in western Box Elder County in an area far removed from any population centers. People in the county support that idea, too, he said.
"If we are going to have a (nuclear waste dump) site in Utah, then one in western Box Elder County, maybe out by the Salt Lake pumps, would be a whole lot safer than the one (proposed) on the Goshute Reservation," he said.
In all, more than two dozen communities, most of them in the West, have at one time or another volunteered interest in hosting a temporary high-level nuclear waste dump. Most are no longer being considered, but a handful are engaged in a high-stakes political gambit that puts them at odds with the anti-nuclear-waste governors in their own states, Utah included.
Beyond the gubernatorial opposition, any proposal to store the hazardous waste faces an uphill battle. There are cumbersome state and federal regulatory processes, not to mention legal battles over environmental concerns.
The process is daunting enough that only a handful of proposals are being seriously considered. A consortium of nuclear power utility companies, most of them in the East, is proceeding with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process to store the waste in above-ground casks on the Goshute Reservation about 40 miles west of Salt Lake City.
A private company, called NEW Corp., is designing a private facility outside of Riverton. And the federal government is looking at creating a temporary storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., the site where all nuclear waste will most likely be stored permanently, deep inside the mountain.
A permanent site won't be ready before 2008, probably even later than that, and that has the government and the utilities scrambling to find temporary sites where the nuclear waste can be parked in above-ground casks until the Yuc-ca Mountain site is ready.
That's where economically strapped communities are stepping up their campaigns to be considered for the dumps. Town leaders in Caliente want it. So do most residents in Fremont County, Wyo.
San Juan County, Utah, officials wanted it until Leavitt vetoed their proposal. Box Elder County is looking at it now but with little hope Leavitt will change his opposition. Arco, Idaho, just north of Utah, already has nuclear waste at the Idaho National Energy Lab and will be getting more.
"There are a whole host of communities out there who are still interested in supporting interim storage, and several have done a lot of work evaluating it and they are convinced it is a good, safe economic opportunity," said Scott North-ard, project manager for Private Fuel Storage, the consortium that has signed a deal with the Goshutes.
In many rural parts of the West, any kind of economic development is a godsend - even the nuclear waste that nobody else wants in their back yards.
In Fremont County, for example, unemployment hovers around 9 percent. On the neighboring Wind River Reservation, it's more than 70 percent.
"This is an old uranium mining community, and people here have a long history of working around radioactive materials," said Robert Anderson, president of NEW Corp., which does business as Owl Creek Energy. "They are not afraid of it (nuclear waste), as long as it is controlled."
Bob Peck, a respected Wyoming state senator and newspaper publisher from Riverton, is an ardent supporter of the project. And "when Bob Peck says it is a reasonable deal, people here believe that it is. People in this town get terribly offended when outsiders try to shut it down without giving us a chance to even talk about it," Anderson said.
Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer has been coy about the project, saying publicly he has bigger economic development fish to fry than a nuclear waste dump that may or may not become a reality.
But silence should not be confused with support, said Geringer's spokesman, Jimmy Orr, who told the Deseret News that state officials there are united in their opposition to the project. "Wyoming doesn't want it, and it would be fruitless for them to try to bring it here. We would fight them every step," he said.
Maybe, but Geringer's office told NEW Corp. it could proceed with the lengthy regulatory process toward licensing but with no promises of state ratification. NEW Corp. has purchased an option on a piece of property and has signed contracts with various engineering and environmental companies to design the facility.
Caliente, a town of 1,200 residents near the Nevada border with southwestern Utah, has no applications pending to store the waste. Rather it has a "common sense" argument that has the Department of Energy taking notice.
Situated along a major Union Pacific rail line, Caliente is also located near Yucca Mountain, where the DOE is eventually hoping to permanently store more than 50 years' worth of commercial and military nuclear waste.
Caliente, a former railroad hub now in the throes of economic despair, sees the waste as an economic boon, particularly with Congress offering millions in "impact" money to communities willing to host a temporary dump site.
"We have been economically depressed for so long, we wouldn't know what a good recession felt like," Mayor Kevin Phillips told the Wall Street Journal recently. All that DOE money could go a long way to upgrade the local transportation infrastructure and maybe revitalize the stagnant community.
Rural Utah communities are facing the same kinds of economic woes. Consequently, there is little political opposition to various proposals over the years to store wastes. Not when waste dumps mean jobs.
San Juan County was one of the 26 entities that had approached the federal government in the early 1990s about hosting a temporary waste site. The county had completed the planning process and was ready to proceed to the next step in the process, a public education campaign, when Leavitt vetoed the proposal in 1993.
"It's a shame," said San Juan County Commissioner Bill Redd. "We felt that a storage facility was significantly safer than what we have been subjected to here with the uranium mining and mills, and we saw it as fulfilling public health and economic development needs."
That was because the deal called for the consortium to clean up the residual radioactive waste already plaguing San Juan County and to make large cash payments to the county to fund its hospital program, particularly for the treatment of cancer patients affected by the uranium industry. Some $100 million a year would have gone to the state.
The governor's veto of the proposal "hit us with both barrels of the gun," Redd said. "We still have the radioactive by-products, we still have higher levels of cancer caused by radiation, and now we are left without the public health benefits and the economic development that would come from 300 to 700 jobs and all the spin-off businesses."
Leavitt's opposition to a nuclear waste dump is unequivocal. Economic needs of one county should never jeopardize the public health of the entire state, in his philosophy. He has promised to fight the Goshute proposal at every step of the regulatory and licensing process.
But even Leavitt admits there is little the state can do to stop the Goshute project. Indian reservations are sovereign nations not subject to state environmental laws, giving PFS a way around state opposition.
If the state cannot stop the Goshute project, Holmgren believes it would be prudent for the state to come up with a better alternative.
"It's a mistake not to leave the waste where it is," he said. "But if they are going to move it, we ought to take a serious look at taking it. By not doing that, then two mistakes have been made. To put the waste at the Goshute site is a third mistake."