Two recent announcements from the Obama administration have energized nuclear power advocates. The first is his plan to offer $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear plants; the other, a task force to look at the dangerously radioactive waste often blamed for delaying what some anticipate will be a nuclear renaissance.
More than a few Utahns are keeping an eye on the new Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. Tooele County includes the nation's largest low-level radioactive waste disposal site, the mile-square EnergySolutions landfill, and the nation's only high-level nuclear site licensed in the past three decades, the derailed Private Fuel Storage facility on the Goshute reservation in Skull Valley.
Both sites have generated controversy in Utah for decades. Now, they could become part of a national nuclear strategy. That's what Utah leaders and advocates on both sides of the nuclear debate plan to watch in the two years the commission takes to develop its final report.
Dianne Nielson, Gov. Gary Herbert's energy adviser, is monitoring the panel's work to ensure "state perspectives and considerations" are respected. Nielson is the former director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality who helped lead the successful opposition to the PFS-Goshute site.
"It's absolutely essential for the states to be involved," she said. "At the end of the day, the federal government is going to have to depend on the states to be part of the solution."
The commission's 15 members do not include a representative of state government. But panelists do bring backgrounds in science, industry, policy and politics to the issue of how the nation can deal with nuclear waste and move forward with nuclear power.
One solution already off the table is Yucca Mountain, the geological repository in neighboring Nevada that has received more than $10 billion in funding and 20 years of study. Energy Secretary Steven Chu reaffirmed at the commission's first meeting on March 25 that its charge is not to revisit the Nevada plans but "to look to the future," with alternative strategies for managing existing and future waste.
The panel will not seek a replacement for Yucca Mountain, insisted Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the nuclear-industry trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. It would be "premature" for Utahns or anyone else to fret about being eyed for a new disposal site, he said.
"That's definitely not part of its mandate, to select a site alternative," Singer said.
Meanwhile, one of the commission's three subcommittees will discuss storage options. Reactor waste is currently stored at 121 nuclear sites, including the 104 operating reactors, in 39 states.
For more than a decade, the Skull Valley site, a joint project of the Skull Valley Goshutes and a consortium of nuclear utilities, was being promoted as a safe, long-term solution to consolidate the growing stockpile of reactor waste. Skull Valley was touted as a long-term parking lot for steel-and-concrete containers filled with 77,000 tons of used nuclear fuel.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a license for the storage site in 2005, but a pair of rulings by the U.S. Interior Department a year later blocked elements essential to the project a transfer facility near Interstate 80 and a land-lease agreement the Goshutes had signed with PFS.
Nielson said that despite a pending court challenge of those rulings, the legal case derailing the Skull Valley site is "compelling."
Vanessa Pierce, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, fears that Skull Valley could be put back on the table because of the license and the nation's renewed interest in nuclear energy. "We're not out of the woods yet," said Pierce, whose group has fought to keep nuclear waste out of the area for more than a decade.
Pierce also is concerned about waste reprocessing and the possibility that it could bring more types and volumes to Utah.
"We're watching pretty closely because there could be a rush for disposal of other dangerous fission materials," she said.
Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions Inc. had little to say about the commission, despite its reliance on waste from the nuclear industry and favorable government policies.
"We are aware of the blue ribbon waste panel discussions regarding high-level waste management," said company spokesman Mark Walker in an e-mail statement. "However, EnergySolutions is not part of the panel."
The company has an interest in several topics of the Blue Ribbon Commission, including reprocessing, decommissioning, new plants and low-level waste disposal. EnergySolutions's Utah site has accepted about 96 percent of the nation's low-level waste in the past 18 years.
Chu told the commission at its first meeting that low-level radioactive waste should be among the issues it considers at its future meetings, according to the RadWaste Monitor, an industry newsletter.
"DOE has responsibilities and legal mandates," the newsletter quoted Chu as saying. "This committee is here to give us advice on all those responsibilities that we have, and we'll try to meet those as best as we can."
Nuclear waste in Utah
The EnergySolutions landfill in Tooele County is the nation's largest low-level radioactive waste site. The derailed Private Fuel Storage facility on the Goshute reservation in Skull Valley is the only high-level nuclear site licensed in the past three decades.