The New York Times
September 16, 2005


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.