Money, politics bury plans for Utah fuel-rod cemetery
Some folks once thought it was a great idea to build a kind of long-term parking lot in Utah's desert for the nation's nuclear-reactor waste.
That thinking drove 11 utility companies to form Private Fuel Storage LLC and partner with the tiny Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians in Tooele County to build a private, interim solution for nuclear waste until the federal government created a permanent one.
With spent fuel rods waste piling up at dozens of reactor sites nationwide, the idea was also a hit nationally especially with the influential nuclear industry and those stuck living near the stored waste.
But now the idea is headed for the bureaucratic trash pail, with too little money and political momentum to blame.
That's what the current chairman of PFS's board hinted in his Dec. 20 letter asking the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to scrap the project license. Robert M. Palmer noted that construction never began, funding was never committed and customers were never signed up.
"It is, therefore, requested that the NRC terminate the license immediately without further action," he wrote, "and without any future licensing fees being incurred."
As the NRC considers the request, stakeholders are getting used to the consortium's final decision.
The tribe seems to have the most at stake. Its leaders had traveled the world under a federal program to study the storage idea. They concluded it would be perfectly safe to keep steel-and-concrete containers of waste within a 100-acre pad just below the tribal village about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. And the $3 billion project seemed sure to be a money-maker.
Lori Bear, chairwoman of the Skull Valley Band, said in a recent news release that she was disappointed PFS is killing the project. But that doesn't change her job, she said, "to bring jobs and revenue to the Goshute Reservation so our people can be self-sufficient."
"We always knew that the spent nuclear fuel project was not going to be easy," said Bear. "But we have prepared ourselves and have been simultaneously working on several projects that I believe will help the Tribe reach its economic development and self-sufficiency goals."
The 100-member band had endured bitter in-fighting over the proposal. Leaders combatted lawsuits and federal convictions. Repeated recall efforts continue even today.
Still worse was a blitzkrieg by Utah political leaders from Salt Lake City to Washington backed by roughly 80 percent of Utah citizens. Their assaults led to state laws that were later struck down as unconstitutional, federal legislation that forced abandonment of a rail spur and arm-twisting campaigns carried out at the Defense Department, the Interior Department and even the White House.
Chip Ward remembers an "amazing" coalition swelled up around the goal of defeating the storage site.
Co-founder of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, he grasped the wariness of Utahns who already had allowed a slew of toxic industries to be established in western Utah including chemical weapons destruction, bio-weapons testing, a low-level nuclear waste site, a hazardous waste site, a toxic waste incinerator and what was then the nation's biggest air polluter.
Public sentiment also fanned then-Gov. Mike Leavitt's opposition, a bipartisan effort that spread throughout the Legislature and Utahns in Congress. Even arch-enemies like former Rep. Jim Hansen and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance teamed and rolled up their sleeves to derail the project.
"When you have a really powerful political movement," Ward said, "you can look past whatever divides you and what is important is the cause that unites you."
The NRC licensed the site in 2006, but the U.S. Interior Department soon crippled it with one decision that blocked an essential right of way and another that nixed the tribe's lease with PFS.
Such moves made Ward believe the project was over long ago even though the decisions were overturned in court. Still, Ward said Friday: "I am relieved that it is finally, formally over."
In an interview, PFS's Palmer praised the Goshutes and reaffirmed the consortium's belief in the interim storage concept, which the President's Blue-Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future endorsed last year.
The Skull Valley site was designed to hold 44,000 tons of fuel, roughly all the spent fuel commercial reactors had generated until that time. Now there's around 74,000 tons and still no disposal or consolidated storage.
But during the long delays, nuclear plants have built their own dry-cask storage to keep waste at the reactor sites for up to 100 years. And PFS member companies have spent more than $1 million in NRC fees just to keep the license alive after spending millions of dollars and a decade on securing it.
Ultimately, said Palmer: "The project continued to have challenges politically and financially."
As federal regulators do the paperwork to invalidate the license, Palmer's group is preparing to dismantle the consortium for good.