In a move that may mean the death of a plan to store thousands of tons of nuclear waste about an hour's drive from Salt Lake City, the U.S. Interior Department on Thursday rejected the lease to build the facility.
"We just wanted to put a spike right through the heart of this project and this does it," Sen. Orrin Hatch said Thursday after being notified of the department's action.
In a pair of decisions, spanning 47 pages, two agencies in the department rejected a lease Private Fuel Storage signed with the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes to store 44,000 tons of spent nuclear rods on 100 acres of reservation land. PFS is a group of companies that operate nuclear reactors where waste has been piling up for a half-century.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found it could not approve a rail line to the reservation because it would have to cross a newly created wilderness area.
A plan to transfer the waste onto tractor-trailers and truck the waste to the reservation was also rejected because it would significantly increase traffic along the two-lane road and because workers transferring the casks would be exposed to radiation.
Those considerations and others - including unanswered questions about the vulnerability of the site to a terrorist attack - prompted the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reject the tribe's plan. The BIA cited inadequate police protection on the reservation, with Tooele County sheriff deputies lacking jurisdiction on the reservation and the nearest BIA officers stationed 4 1/2 hours away.
Furthermore, with a planned permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., still up in the air, it is unclear when the waste would leave the reservation, and the department lacks the technical knowledge to monitor the waste.
The rulings make it clear that the ultimate decision belonged to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the former Idaho governor confirmed in May to his Cabinet post. The decisions describe him as a "trustee-delegate" charged with "the complex task of weighing the long-term viability of the Skull Valley Goshute reservation as a homeland for the Band (and the implications for preservation of tribal culture and life) against the benefits and risks from economic development activities. . . . "
After conducting this balancing test, "we conclude that it is not consistent with the conduct expected of a prudent trustee to approve a proposed lease that promotes storing [spent nuclear fuel] on the reservation," wrote Associate Deputy Interior Secretary James Cason.
But nowhere in the 47 pages is there any indication the Skull Valley Band was involved in the decision making. And, in fact, tribal Chairman Leon Bear apparently did not learn about Kempthorne's decision until after Hatch issued a press release, according to PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin.
Martin indicated it is premature to declare the project dead.
"We do need to see the record of decision and look at it in some detail before we get a good feel for what our options are. I believe Senator Hatch would lead you to believe we have no options and I'm not sure that's true," Martin said. "We'll have to see. Stay tuned."
Mary Allen, one of three Goshute leaders who began negotiating the deal 10 years ago, said the tribe would fight the ruling because members want the financial benefit of the project. The exact sum the 125 members could expect from the deal has never been disclosed, although it is rumored to be in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.
Allen called Thursday's ruling "just another roadblock."
"The lease was recognized" by the Interior Department, Allen said. "The BIA is scared because of the politics and Senator Hatch."
Hatch, though, wasn't the only politician fighting the project.
Sen. Bob Bennett noted that all five Utah congressional members have lobbied the Interior Department to kill the plan. Their pleas in recent months have been directed at Kempthorne.
"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," Bennett said in a statement Thursday. "This ends any possibility that the Goshute facility will ever be used for the storage of high-level nuclear waste."
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. declared Thursday's action "the best news I think our state has seen in recent years . . . And it's one that people have fought very hard for and we're there. We can finally put a period at the end of the sentence."
Despite what PFS says, Huntsman added, "This makes it a done deal. It's over."
PFS received its Nuclear Regulatory Commission license last year, nine years after applying for it. The license was conditioned on the BLM's approval of a plan to transport the waste to the site and BIA's final OK of the Goshutes' lease with PFS.
The Interior Department decision could be challenged in court.
"We need to sort through the ashes and put out a few embers maybe, but other than that it's stone cold dead," Hatch said. "It couldn't happen to nicer people."
Since the NRC voted to approve the PFS license a year ago, Utah's congressional delegation pushed through legislation creating the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area adjacent to the Skull Valley reservation, blocking rail access to the site. All but two of the project's original 11 backers have said they will not help fund construction of the project.
And efforts are underway in Congress to create at least one and possibly several government-run interim storage facilities, potentially making private storage unnecessary.
In May, Hatch and Bennett wrote to the BLM, arguing the wilderness designation made it impossible for PFS to build the rail line to the reservation, and that an alternate plan - to build a station to move the nuclear material from trains to trucks and drive it to the reservation - was full of holes.
There was no security plan for the proposed transfer facility, it would violate the land management plan for the area, would hurt Air Force training on the nearby Utah Test and Training Range and would be a terrorist target, the senators argued.
The BLM received more than 4,500 letters, mostly from Utahns opposed to the nuclear waste site.
"These are the largest nails in the coffin, but we know the nuclear industry is desperate to transfer the risks and liabilities away from their own users and to other states," said Vanessa Pierce, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. "It just goes to show that when citizens speak up loud and clear, they have more power than they imagine."
Margene Bullcreek said she was ecstatic about the ruling because the waste project has torn the tribe apart.
"It's been a long, long trial and at this point it's a big, big triumph," Bullcreek said. "We still need to deal with economic development, but I'm glad we will not have this poisonous waste."
Rep. Chris Cannon said he expected the Interior Department to reject the PFS plan.
"PFS has never made sense," Cannon said. "We should be very pleased that Interior has done what we asked them to do."
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the decision was a huge win for Utah and especially for the military and its test and training range, which is three miles from the proposed nuclear waste storage site.
"They were looking for good reasons and I think we gave them good reasons and I applaud the Interior for their decision," Bishop said.
"I wish it would have been resolved sooner," said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. "I don't know anyone in America who wants nuclear waste thrown in their backyard."
Tribune reporter Thomas Burr contributed to this report.
* The U.S. Interior Department denied a lease and a transportation plan that were crucial to proposed nuclear waste storage in Utah's Skull Valley, about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
* Critics pronounced the project dead. But the decision could still be appealed in court.
* The Skull Valley Goshutes and their commercial partner in the project have yet to say if, or how, they will fight the rulings.