WASHINGTON - Private Fuel Storage is close to receiving the first-ever license for commercial, off-site storage of nuclear waste from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Monday, but a series of obstacles remain before the proposed facility can open its gates in Utah.
Specifically, the group of electric utilities seeking to store 44,000 tons of reactor fuel on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation still has to find an acceptable way to deliver the waste to the site 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, and has to sell the storage space to enough reactor operators to make the economics add up. It also must prevail in a legal challenge filed by the state.
The commission hand-delivered the license Monday to PFS Chairman John Parkyn, who was heading up a meeting of the American Nuclear Society in Chicago.
"It is a very significant step. It's the end of an 8 1/2 -year process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, so we're very pleased that it has happened," said Sue Martin, PFS spokeswoman.
PFS plans the temporary storage until a permanent repository can be built beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Nuclear regulatory commissioners voted in September to approve the lease, and the commission staff has been working since then to write the formal document.
Michael S. Lee, counsel to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., noted the license will not be valid until the company meets several requirements. One such provision is that the 20-ton lids be welded onto the steel and concrete casks after being transported to the site - to a one-sixteenth-inch fit.
"This is just another one of the big hurdles that PFS will have to clear," Lee said.
The license does not authorize PFS to begin construction immediately. The company still has to show it has adequate finances to build the site, then has to show it has enough waste-storage contracts to fund dismantling and cleaning up the site before it can begin operations.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement Monday that the license is meaningless. Hatch has said that the crumbling PFS coalition, which has lost several members in recent months, will make it impossible to meet the financial terms.
"The NRC's making an awful decision, but we can't let it deter us from killing this project once and for all," Hatch said. "This marks the first time the NRC intends to grant a license for a private, off-site storage site for spent nuclear fuel. That's a bad precedent, especially since the PFS is clearly not part of the government's nuclear waste program."
Hatch said the NRC's decision to proceed without agreement from the Bureau of Land Management over protection of cultural and historic sites opens another avenue for a legal challenge to the PFS plan. The consortium also has to receive permission from the BLM for a permit to allow waste to be delivered to Skull Valley.
The issue of waste delivery became complicated when the Utah congressional delegation pushed through Congress a wilderness area near the Skull Valley reservation that essentially blocked plans to build a rail line to the reservation.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the issuance of a license was not a surprise.
"I'm glad our provision to block the most-preferred transportation route for the waste finally passed and was signed into law last month by the president," Bishop said in a statement. "That will ensure that even with a license, PFS is far from making this unwise project a reality."
PFS' other transportation option is to build a transfer facility to move the nuclear waste from rail cars to heavy trucks, which would drive the material to the storage site.
The BLM is reviewing the proposed transfer facility, and recently opened a 90-day public comment period on the plan. Jason Groenewold, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said public input on the BLM right-of-way could mean an insurmountable obstacle.
"The real question is, will PFS ante up or will they be persuaded to fold?" he said.
PFS has until Friday to review the license for technical or typographical errors. Utah attorneys also will receive a copy but cannot recommend changes.
Reporter Judy Fahys contributed to this story.