SALT LAKE CITY – A federal licensing board approved a proposed nuclear waste dump Thursday, reversing an earlier ruling that there was too much risk of a plane crash from a nearby air base.
The 2-1 vote by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board sent the proposal to the full Nuclear Regulatory Commission for final approval.
The approval was a blow to state officials, who have long fought the plans to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel rods at the facility on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian reservation, about 50 miles southwest of Salt Lake City and near the sprawling Utah Test and Training Range.
The Air Force flies thousands of training missions each year from Hill Air Force Base, and in stalling dump construction in March 2003, the board had cited the possibility that a fighter jet could crash into the facility.
Regulatory standards forbid the project if the probability of a radiation breech from a crash is more than one in a million per year.
The board had initially accepted an analysis that the probability was four times that. But the board said Thursday that further analysis showed that even if an F-16 did crash into the site, it would be unlikely to cause “cask and canister damage resulting in radiological release” unless the plane were traveling at a particular speed and angle.
The waste is expected to end up at a proposed Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada. The state contended that rods could end up permanently in Utah because the Energy Department isn’t obligated to transport them to Nevada, but the licensing board rejected the argument Thursday, saying the state didn’t have enough facts to support its stance.
Assistant Utah Attorney General Denise Chancellor said her office will continue to fight the facility, either through another appeal to the board, in court or before the regulatory commission.
The issue has wound its way through the courts since Skull Valley Band Tribal Chairman Leon Bear signed a lease in 1997 allowing Private Fuel Storage to store the fuel on Goshute land. The site is barren desert, and the storage plan would bring the small impoverished tribe a fortune – possibly as much as $3 billion.
PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin said the consortium was pleased with the ruling and remained undeterred by the state’s opposition.
“I can’t think of any nuclear facility that has been welcomed with open arms. … But once the facility is there and operating safely, it becomes part of the community, and the opinions and attitudes change,” she said.
As planned, the storage pad would hold up to 4,000 casks filled with depleted nuclear fuel – about 10 million rods – across 100 acres of the Skull Valley. The waste would be shipped over rail lines, mostly from reactors east of the Mississippi.