WASHINGTON Private Fuel Storage no longer has a lease to use tribal lands to store nuclear waste in Tooele County in the wake of decisions made by two Interior Department agencies Thursday.
Utah politicians said the decisions leave almost no chance that the waste shipments will come to the state.
"This is the period at the end of the sentence," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said. "It does it for us. This is the best news Utah has received in a long time."
In two separate decisions, the Bureau of Indian Affairs disapproved a lease that allowed PFS to use Skull Valley Goshute Indian reservation land, and the Bureau of Land Management refused to grant the rights of way needed to build transportation methods needed to move tons of used nuclear fuel through the state and to the storage site.
"They can't get it to the reservation, and they have no site because they have no lease," said Denise Chancellor, Utah assistant attorney general. "I believe this is the end of the line."
The decisions create more tough obstacles for PFS. The company received its license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission earlier this year, lost several original investors and still waits for a response from the government to a request they do business together. PFS was originally made up a eight nuclear utilities that wanted to create an interim storage site for 40,000 tons of nuclear waste because the permanent federal storage site is so overdue.
The federal site, now planned for Nevada's Yucca Mountain, was supposed to open in 1998, but will not open until at least the next decade. Most utilities store spent fuel on site but face rising costs or space constraints.
Chancellor said she felt "euphoric" Thursday, reflecting on the 10-year battle against the project. The state fought against the project getting a license and still has a legal case pending in federal appeals court against it. She said from a legal standpoint, these are final decisions issued by the Interior Department, and she could not think how they could be changed.
"PFS is dead. It's that simple," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who announced the Interior Department decision Thursday. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said the department did what "we expected them to do."
"This comes as very welcome news," Cannon said.
Private Fuel Storage spokeswoman Sue Martin said neither she nor consortium chairman John Parkyn had received or reviewed the documents from the Interior Department late Thursday, so she could not comment on their contents.
"We have to take a look at exactly what their reasoning is and what this all consists of," Martin said. She added that Hatch's proclamation that the project is dead "is a bit premature."
Hatch, however, said that any notion that PFS could still put waste in Utah after Thursday's news is "pure hogwash."
"With this action, all but one nail has been driven into the PFS coffin," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. "Now we just have to get PFS to surrender its license. Putting an above-ground, high-level nuclear storage dump right next to a test and bombing range never made sense, and it never will."
Lawmakers declared a cautious victory last year when Congress passed the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Act. The bill, signed into law by President Bush, protected land in the Utah Test and Training Range. But the measure also included what PFS needed to build its rail line down to the Goshute land.
The other option was to use heavy-haul trucks to move the waste, but the consortium would still need a right-of-way from the BLM to build a special facility on public land to handle the containers.
Hatch persuaded Interior to hold another public-comment period on whether it was in the public's best interest to allow PFS access to federal land to move the waste. The department received about 6,000 comments on the issue, spokesman Shane Wolfe said.
"Utah spoke and the BLM listened," Hatch said. "It proves that every citizen can make a difference."
In Thursday's decision, Chad Calvert, acting assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management, said that the wilderness area voided the request for the rail-line land and that granting the land for the other transfer station would not go along with the agency's goal of managing public lands and avoiding environmental harm. He also brought up security concerns. -->
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said that "for years, the entire delegation has urged the Department of Interior to take this action. I raised this issue with Secretary Kempthorne prior to his confirmation last spring and stressed the importance of it to our state. I am delighted with his prompt response. This ends any possibility that the Goshute facility will ever be used for the storage of high-level nuclear waste."
As for the lease, the superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Uintah and Ouray Agency that originally signed the conditional lease in 1997 between the Goshutes and PFS for 820 acres of land did not have the power to sign such a document, said James Cason, associate deputy secretary.
The BIA said the conditional approval does not bind the secretary to approve it now, and it did not find approving the lease to be in the government's best interest. The BIA also noted the "years-long" delay in the construction of the permanent federal nuclear-waste storage site gives "no firm basis" to determine when the nuclear waste would leave the tribal land, among other reasons. "As I said all along, administrative avenues through the federal agencies offered a clear shot at stopping high-level radioactive-waste storage from coming to Utah," said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. "I am so glad that thousands of Utahns contacted BLM about the environmental problems with the right-of-way application across public lands and that now we can celebrate the demise of this dangerous disposal scheme."
Margene Bullcreek, among those who have long opposed the plan which has divided the tribe's Skull Valley band, expressed relief after hearing the news from her attorney.
"I am ecstatic about it," she said. "That's something that wasn't good for our tribe. It wasn't good for our future generation because of the poison that it holds. Hopefully, we can get back to our healing process from all the hurt and separation it has caused our relatives."
Vanessa Pierce, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah said this was great news but said the state is still vulnerable because the nuclear industry wants to get waste off their own sites and into other states.