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Not a dump

Published December 15, 2012 1:01 am

New Mexico offers a better plan
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When is a nuclear waste dump not a dump? When it is part of a complex of nuclear industry processing facilities in a region of the desert Southwest where residents have made their peace with the idea. Or even welcomed it.

This is one kind of economic competition that Utah should be willing to lose.

As explained in The Salt Lake Tribune this week, the cross-border area around Eunice, N.M., and Andrews, Texas, is the new hot spot in the nuclear energy game. The Waste Control Specialists facility on the Texas side is in direct competition with Utah's EnergySolutions in the low-level nuclear waste disposal business. And the more active facilities on the New Mexico side would recommend the region as the best site for hotter wastes, especially the 71,000 tons of spent fuel rods now slowly decaying in power plants around the nation.

Eunice is the home of Urenco USA, the American arm of a multinational company that is in the nuclear-fuel creating business. It enriches basic uranium to the strength that can fuel a nuclear power plant. It is, to hear the locals tell it, a thriving concern that has kept the area's unemployment at a mere 5 percent, while the rest of the nation was suffering through a recession and much of the region was rusting away in the boom-and-bust oil business.

Now the Eunice community, in partnership with a different European company, is lobbying to become the place that handles the other end of the nuclear fuel process. It is seeking the voluminous permits and approvals necessary to become the substitute for the benighted Yucca Mountain repository, the Nevada site that was supposed to handle all that spent nuclear fuel and related wastes, but which never opened due to scientific and political feuds.

The Eunice plan is not to offer itself up as a mere dump, where nuclear leavings can be dropped and forgotten. It is to become the alpha and omega of nuclear power. Its storage facility — as opposed to, say, a plan for a temporary depository once floated by Utah's Skull Valley Band of Goshutes — would be part of a corridor of actively managed, and so more trustworthy, nuclear facilities.

Should the political and technical issues ever be solved, that waste could actually become a raw material for new fuel, the kind of recycling that will be necessary if our nation is ever to crack the riddle of how to use carbon-free nuclear power without weighing down future generations with deadly waste that never goes away.

This is one time when Utah's economic development gurus should be rooting for a project in another state.