FROM THE ARCHIVE

Utah bans high-level nuclear waste

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MARCH 14, 2001

Hoping to prevent his state from becoming a toxic dumping ground, Governor Mike Leavitt on Tuesday signed two bills aimed at banning high-level nuclear waste from entering Utah.

"The bills I sign today represent our commitment to block the storage of high-level nuclear waste in Utah," said Leavitt. "We don't want it here, and we will continue to use every legal, environmental, legislative and political tool available to ban nuclear fuel rods from this state."

But some, albeit a very small minority, disagree. They are known as the Skull Valley Goshute Tribe, whose sovereign rights over their 18,000-acre reservation in northwestern Utah are at the center of the highly charged debate.

With less than 150 members, the tribal council is banking on storing up to 40,000 tons of nuclear waste on their land as a means of combating high unemployment and low economic opportunities. Fewer than 50 tribal members live on the reservation and the tribe last cited an unemployment rate of 68 percent.

So in 1997, the tribe signed an agreement with Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight private utility companies, to accept highly radioactive nuclear waste from sites all across the country. Ever since then, the state has battled the plan, which has to be approved by a number of federal agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In advance of potential approval, Leavitt yesterday signed into law an outright ban of the type of waste that would be stored on the Goshute reservation. Should the federal government trump state objections, however, the bill also prohibits Toole County, where the reservation is located, from providing certain types of fire, water, and municipal services to the site and imposes heavy fees on any organization who does the same.

Sue Martin, a spokesperson for PFS, wasn't surprised by the state's efforts but said federal law "clearly preempts" their actions. She also said PFS believes the law is unconstitutional and can be challenged in court.

"The process for establishing a facility to store spent nuclear fuel is governed by federal regulation," said Martin. "What the state of Utah is trying to do is go around that established method."

So far, PFS and the tribe have received a favorable review from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whose safety evaluation last fall deemed the site safe. The Surface Transportation Board last month also gave preliminary approval to a 32-mile railroad that would transport waste to the site. The Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, however, recently pushed back its final decision until April 2002.

Recognizing the tribe's economic conditions, Leavitt also signed into law a bill authorizing a study of economic development needs for all tribes in the state. A number of state agencies will work with the Governor's office on the study, whose results should be available by the end of the year.

The site would be located about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

Relevant Links:
Utah Office of High Level Nuclear Waste Opposition - http://www.eq.state.ut.us/HLW/Hlw_opp.htm
Private Fuel Storage Facility Application, Nuclear Regulatory Commission - http://www.nrc.gov/OPA/reports/pfs.htm
Private Fuel Storage - http://www.privatefuelstorage.com
The Skull Valley Goshutes - http://www.skullvalleygoshutes.org
Utah Office of Indian Affairs - http://www.utah.org/indian

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