Utah Site Gets License for Nuclear Waste Repository
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
One of the few places in the country that actually wants nuclear waste is a step closer to getting it. It's a Native American reservation in the Utah desert. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given the go-ahead for a nuclear waste storage facility there that would hold 44,000 tons of spent fuel while it waits for a final resting place. The project has the support of the tribe's chief, but officials in Utah are doing everything they can to stop it. That's one reason the license took eight years to get approved.
NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:
Meteor strikes were among the disastrous scenarios reviewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and earthquakes and plane crashes. Military jets make thousands of training runs nearby every year. But in the end, the NRC decided the facility could be operated without endangering the public.
John Parkin is CEO of the Consortium of Electrical Utilities that applied for the license, Private Fuel Storage, PFS. He's surprised the license for something he sees as pretty straightforward, took so long to get.
Mr. JOHN PARKIN (CEO, Consortium of Electrical Utilities): It is a parking lot for up to 4,000 canisters on 500 slabs of concrete with senses.
KESTENBAUM: Parkin says there are already a dozen or so hazardous sites in the area including a nerve gas incinerator. The license would allow nuclear waste to be parked at the site for 20 years, though that could be extended.
Mr. PARKIN: Is feels great. It's been a long challenge you know and it's such a major national issue.
KESTENBAUM: Tons of nuclear waste are scattered at 66 sites around the country waiting for somewhere to go. Parkin lives in Wisconsin not far from the LaCrosse Nuclear Plant. It was built 40 years ago when he was in high school. It's now shut down but the used radioactive fuel is still there. The federal government was required by law to begin disposing of nuclear waste eight years ago. It did not, which is why some utilities banded together to apply for this license for a temporary facility.
The immediate reason why the license took so long to get is Denise Chancellor, the Assistant Attorney General for the State of Utah. Her team raised so many objections, A, B, C, D, they ran out the end of the alphabet.
Ms. DENISE CHANCELLOR (Assistant Attorney General, Utah): I think we got up to U-U in the alphabet so that's probably close to 50 odd.
KESTENBAUM: All of the objections, she says, were legitimate.
Ms. CHANCELLOR: If you're going to park spent nuclear fuel, over earthquake faults, being over flown by fighter planes, and next to a bombing range, it doesn't take a rocket science to figure out that this is not the ideal site.
KESTENBAUM: The NRC concluded the odds of a plane crash were less than one in a million per year. Even with the license, the project still faces a number of potential obstacles. It needs approval from three other agencies. And Private Fuel Storage still has to raise money to actually build the facility. And here the long licensing process may have hurt the project. Electrical Utilities may not be interested.
Ms. BENTINA TERRY (Vice President, Southern Nuclear): It's just not in our game plan anymore.
KESTENBAUM: Bentina Terry is a vice president with Southern Nuclear which owns two nuclear plants in Georgia and one in Alabama.
Ms. TERRY: Originally we had a need for the facility. Since it has taken such a long time for the facility to be licensed, our need has changed significantly.
KESTENBAUM: Her company has already built temporary storage on site for their spent fuel. Still, she's glad PFS has gotten a license. There is one more potential snag. PFS will have to figure out how to get the waste the last few miles to the site. One plan was to build a rail line, but last month proponents of the project in Congress, passed legislation that would make that difficult. It designated nearby land as a wilderness area. It was the first time a wilderness area had been created in Utah in over 20 years.
Pete Downing with the environmental group, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, says the land wasn't their top priority but they'll take it.
Mr. PETE DOWNING (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance): People have joked about, well, nuclear waste may have been one of the best things for Utah Wilderness for a while so.
KESTENBAUM: The license for the nuclear storage facility is being delivered today. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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