The New York Times September 16, 2005 EDITORIAL: THE NUCLEAR WASTE SITE IN UTAH While few people outside Utah were paying close attention last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized the licensing of a private storage plant for spent nuclear fuel rods on an Indian reservation some 50 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Utah's outraged political leaders pledged to use every legal and political trick available to block the project even though, as representatives of a very conservative state, they supposedly abhor bureaucratic or judicial interference with private corporate decisions. Their contention -- that the storage site, backed by a consortium of eight utilities, would pose a safety hazard -- seems overblown. If the project should clear all of the remaining regulatory, legal and commercial hurdles, it could provide a useful interim storage site while the nation seeks a more permanent burial site deep underground. The government's long-term goal is to bury the waste in stable geologic formations that will be resistant to leaks for eons to come. Unfortunately, progress has been slow. The only site approved for evaluation -- at Yucca Mountain in Nevada -- has been hobbled by technical problems and legal challenges. Meanwhile, spent fuel rods have been piling up in cooling pools and in dry-storage casks at nuclear reactor sites around the country. So far as is known, the used fuel rods can be left there safely for decades. But it becomes awkward and costly to guard and maintain the storage casks after the reactors themselves have been retired from service. Several reactors have already been shut down, and more are apt to follow. In some cases, the spent fuel rods sit on land that might have more valuable uses. Unless these used fuel rods can be sent to Yucca, a destination that has not yet been approved to receive them, it seems desirable to have a backup site. The question of whether Utah is the best place for such a site has never been addressed. Private Fuel Storage, a company set up by the utilities, simply negotiated a deal with a small, poor Indian tribe, the Skull Valley Goshutes, for an undisclosed but presumably substantial amount of money. The site seems safe enough. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- both charged with protecting the public from nuclear hazards -- approved the project after an exhaustive eight-year process. There are still hurdles to clear before the site can be developed. The state plans to appeal the decision in federal courts. It will also try to persuade the Bureau of Indian Affairs to withhold approval of the lease and will ask the Bureau of Land Management to deny a right of way needed for a rail spur to haul spent fuel to the site. So there is plenty of room for political interference should the Bush administration wish to do Utah a favor. Meanwhile, Private Fuel Storage will need to sign up enough customers to make the project financially viable. Some utilities in the consortium are reported to be in no great rush to ship fuel rods to the site only to then ship them a second time, to Yucca. We remain hopeful that Yucca can qualify as a permanent disposal site. But if Yucca fails to pass muster with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the nation will need a centralized surface site to fill the gap until a safe burial location can be found. The Indian reservation in Utah can fill that purpose.