The Nuclear Waste Policy Act was established by Congress in
1982 to solve the problem of nuclear waste and made the U.S. Department of
Energy (DOE) responsible to find, build and operate an underground disposal
facility, called a “geologic repository” by January 31, 1998. Between 1983 and
1985, the DOE selected a variety of locations for the repository and reported
on them to the president. The president approved 3 sites for intensive studies,
one of which was Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
In 1987, Congress made an amendment to the Nuclear Policy
Waste Act and directed the U.S. Department of Energy to study only the Yucca Mountain site. By 2002, the US Senate approved the development of a geologic repository in Yucca Mountain, and President Bush signed the bill allowing the DOE to take the next step in establishing a safe repository for nuclear waste.
However, government officials soon recognized that they
would not meet the 1998 storage deadline passed by Congress. In the early 1990s, the DOE sought applications from communities
and Indian tribes for grants to study the possibility of temporarily accepting
nuclear waste until a permanent site could be built. The Skull Valley Band of
Goshute Indians in Utah responded to the request and accepted two grants
totaling $300,000 to conduct studies on storing nuclear waste on their tribal
lands. From 1992 until 1995, the leaders of the Goshute Band carefully
accumulated data and traveled to various parts of the United States and the
world to examine all aspects of spent nuclear fuel storage.
In 1997 Private Fuel Storage (PFS) negotiated a deal with
the Skull Valley Goshutes and submitted an application to the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission for a license to store spent fuel on the Skull Valley
reservation about 50 miles from Salt Lake City. Members of the PFS consortium
and other utility companies are running out of on-site storage space and need a
temporary place to store spent fuel because the Yucca Mountain long-term
storage site has not yet been approved. PFS hopes that Utah’s central storage
facility will allow for continued operation of nuclear plants, plant improvements
and license extension, and the ability to decommission shut-down plants once
they have moved spent fuel to the storage facility.
Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians:
The Goshute Tribe has
inhabited the Southwestern part of the United States for thousands of years. At
their peak the Goshutes numbered about 20,000 but now there are less than 500
members, of which 124 belong to the Skull Valley Band. Today, the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation
is comprised of approximately 18,000 acres. Skull Valley is officially welcoming
the waste because there will be approximately 60 local jobs created by this
project to provide employment for all of the tribal members who wish to move
back to the Goshute Reservation and find work. The revenue will also be
sufficient to add land to the Reservation and to build new housing and
construct a needed reservoir to provide irrigation water year round. However,
one faction within the Tribe is against the waste being stored in the
Private Fuel Storage (PFS):
Private Fuel Storage, LLC (PFS) is
a group of eight electric utility companies that have partnered with the Skull
Valley Band of Goshute Indians to license a temporary facility to store spent
nuclear fuel rods from commercial power plants on the Indian Tribe's
reservation in Skull Valley, Utah. PFS electric utility companies include Xcel
Energy, Genoa Fuel Tech, American Electric Power, Southern California Edison, Southern
Nuclear Company, First Energy, Entergy, and Florida Power and Light. PFS has been
working to license a nuclear waste storage facility on the Goshute Reservation
to provide a centralized storage option for nuclear power plants until the
federal government has a permanent repository ready. As of this publication,
concerns have been raised about the continued viability of PFS. As the Salt Lake Tribune
reported in its
December 9, 2005 edition, Southern Company is completely withdrawing from PFS.
Additionally, the largest partner, Xcel Energy has determined it no longer
needs the Skull Valley facility and will not provide further funding to PFS.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC):
The NRC is an independent
federal agency responsible for licensing and regulating the receipt and
possession of high-level waste, including spent fuel as well as reprocessing
waste at privately owned facilities, and at certain facilities of the DOE. The
NRC has signaled its willingness to grant the license for the PFS facility in
its recent September 9, 2005 ruling to authorize a license for the construction
of the facility. The state of Utah is challenging the NRC ruling to grant the
license pending a petition of review to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the D.C.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of Utah:
The Bureau of Land Management
(BLM) is an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior that administers 261
million surface acres of America's public lands and works to sustain the health,
diversity, and productivity of public lands.
Glenn A. Carpenter, manager of the BLM’s Salt Lake Office has said that
he cannot sign an agreement allowing PFS to build a railroad spur to its
proposed repository site in Skull Valley until a moratorium on land-use
planning is lifted by Congress or a resource study is completed by the Air
Department of Energy (DOE):
The Department of Energy works to
protect the environment by providing for the permanent disposal of the Nation’s
high-level radioactive waste. Samuel W. Bodman, Secretary of the U.S.
Department of Energy stated in a letter to Senator Hatch that if the DOE’s
Yucca Mountain repository is built it will reduce, if not eliminate, the need
for high-level waste to go to the PFS facility in Utah. He also stated that the
DOE cannot provide funding or financial assistance to the PFS facility because
it is not part of the department’s overall strategy for nuclear waste storage.
Utah Congressional Delegation:
As a group, the Utah
Congressional Delegation is opposed to the nuclear storage site. Senators Hatch
and Bennett have vehemently fought the facility and Orrin Hatch has publicly
said that he will “pull out every stop in the book to stop the PFS plan.” They
have recently enlisted the support of Senator Harry Reid from Nevada to create
a wilderness area which will significantly disrupt plans for a rail link to
transport the waste.
In 2000, Representative Hansen inserted a line item in
an armed services appropriations bill requiring that the Air Force conduct a
study regarding the likelihood of a plane crash into the nuclear facility. More
than 7,000 low flying F-16 airplanes fly across the proposed nuclear site per
year to the Utah Testing and Training (UTT)range and there is a chance that one of
these airplanes could crash into the facility or that the construction and
operation of the rail spur could diminish the utility of the UTT ground to the
Air Force’s operations. The Department
of Energy cannot issue a right for the proposed rail spur until the Air Force
completes its study. On December 6, 2005 Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne
signed a letter expressing support for Utah’s push to create a wilderness area
in the Cedar Mountains and stating that the creation of the wilderness area
would not impair the Air Force’s ability to use the UTT range.
The Cedar Mountain Wilderness Proposal
: Congressman Bishop (R,
Utah) and other representatives from the State of Utah are working with
Congress to create legislation to block the proposed rail spur to the PFS
storage facility. This legislation will fulfill several purposes. First,
because the military uses tracking stations along Cedar Mountain to lead planes
to the Testing and Training ground, the legislation states that the Air Force
will still be able to use the tracking stations even if the land is designated
a wilderness area. Second, the legislation blocks the alignment for the
dedicated rail spur by stating that the Secretary of the Interior cannot create
a right of way through the protected lands.
Finally, section 28.15 of the Department of Defense’s National Defense Authorization
Act states that the Secretary of the Interior cannot proceed in granting a
right of way if the storage plan will affect wilderness areas.
In general, radioactive waste classes are based on the
origin of the waste, not the physical and chemical properties of the waste. A
common factor for all categories of nuclear waste is the presence of at least
some amount of long-lived radionuclides.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) separates wastes
into two broad classifications: high-level
High-level radioactive waste results primarily from the fuel
used by reactors to produce electricity. High-level radioactive waste is
uranium fuel that has been used in a nuclear power reactor and is “spent” or no
longer efficient in generating power to the reactor to produce electricity.
Spent fuel is thermally hot as well as highly radioactive and requires remote
handling and shielding to prevent radiation poisoning.
Low-level radioactive waste is radioactive waste that is not
classified as high-level, spent fuel. It has four subcategories:
: The least radioactive
of the four low-level waste classes, primarily contaminated
with “short-lived” radionuclides. Currently, Envirocare of Utah stores class A waste in Tooele County.
: May be contaminated
with a greater amount of “short-lived” radionuclides than class A.
: May be contaminated
with greater amounts of long lived and short-lived radionuclides than class A or B.
: Most radioactive of the
Private Fuel Storage (PFS) is proposing to store high-level waste
at the Goshute Indian
reservation facility. Existing high-level wastes from reprocessing are presently
stored at West Valley, New York; Hanford, Washington; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Savannah
River, South Carolina.
Spent fuel is first removed from a reactor and then placed
in a special pool of water in a steel-lined concrete basin. After the spent
fuel has cooled in the pool for approximately five
years, the fuel canister is removed, the water
is drained and the canister is sealed with a 10-inch thick steel top. The
canister is then placed into a thick steel transportation cask for shipping to
the storage site. At the storage site, the inner canister is lifted out of the
transportation cask and placed into a concrete and steel storage cask. The
loaded storage cask, weighing about 180 tons, is then either placed upright on
concrete pads, or stored horizontally in metal canisters in concrete bunkers. PFS
proposes to build 4,000 above-ground storage casks on thick reinforced concrete
pads with each cask containing 10 metric tons of spent fuel.
Other options for the permanent disposal of nuclear waste
include the mixed oxide (MOX) fuel burning method, the vitrification method,
and the subductive waste disposal method.
The MOX fuel burning
plutonium with uranium and produces a slightly different fuel than is now used
for civilian reactors. MOX burns up the plutonium by nuclear fission (the
splitting of atomic nuclei which releases large amounts of energy) and allows
more of the plutonium to be used as an energy source. However, the end
product still must be disposed of and stored like other nuclear waste.
The vitrification method
of weapons-grade plutonium with radioactive waste from civilian reactors and
placing this mixture in borosilicate glass logs. The logs are then buried
in a deep borehole at least four kilometers deep. Using this method, the
plutonium could be suitably encased and isolated to the extent that its decay
process may occur without polluting the environment. However, this method has
not been tested and it is unclear that the encasement will remain leak proof over
The subductive waste disposal method
the most viable means of disposing of radioactive waste. Subduction
refers to a process in which one tectonic plate slides beneath another while
being reabsorbed into the Earth's mantle. The subductive waste disposal method
involves the formation of a radioactive waste repository in a subducting plate
where the waste will be absorbed along with the plate and dispersed through the
mantle. The most accessible site is on the ocean floor at a point above
where subducting plates meet and, once filled, the repositories would be
virtually inaccessible. This method would prevent radioactive waste from
mixing with the water table, provide inaccessibility to eliminated weapons
material, remove radioactive waste completely from its threatening position,
and be safe for marine life.
The NRC requires that companies ship radioactive materials
in accordance with the hazardous materials transportation safety regulations of
the Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT regulations prescribe limits on
the maximum amounts of radioactivity that can be transported in each shipment to
prevent substantial health risks. PFS proposes to construct a 32-mile dedicated
rail line, from the Union
rail line to the storage site for the delivery of spent fuel. PFS is also
working closely with the railroad industry to design and test a new rail car with
advanced safety features to carry the heavy transportation casks.
PFS has already taken several steps to license the nuclear
storage facility on the Goshute Indian reservation. The table below highlights
the major steps taken in the licensing process.
Application to the NRC
PFS filed its application
NRC Staff review
NRC staff begins review of safety and environmental aspects of application.
Notice in the Federal Register
NRC placed notice inviting individuals or groups affected by the project to
Atomic Safety and Licensing Board
NRC named judges to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board that will decide
the PFS case.
Safety Evaluation Report
12/99 and 9/00
NRC issued a preliminary report (12/99) evaluating PFS
compliance with most of the safety-related regulations, and a final report
(9/00) evaluating the remaining safety requirements.
The ASLB held the first of two sets of hearings at which PFS and the
interveners presented evidence supporting their positions on the issues.
The second set of hearings was held in summer 2002.
The ASLB invited the public
to make "limited
appearance statements" at
meetings held in Salt
Lake City and Tooele.
Environmental Impact Statement
The NRC issued a final EIS, a comprehensive environmental review that also
addresses issues raised by the interveners and the public.
The ASLB began ruling on issues considered at hearings,
starting in March 2003. On the risks of military aircraft crashes, the
Board ruled that the risk of such an event is greater than one in a million
and offered PFS the opportunity to return with additional data. PFS
received favorable rulings on the issues of seismic hazards, financial
qualifications, and wilderness issues.
The NRC authorized
the issuance of the
license for the facility.
voted to deny the state
petition for review of
Commission and (ASLB)
rulings. In addition,
the Commissioners authorized
the NRC Staff to issue
the license authorizing
the construction and
operation of the PFS
facility by a 3 to 1
At this point opponents of the project are fighting the
proposal on every front.
Rep. Rob Biship, R-Utah is working with Congress
to designate Cedar Mountain as a wilderness area and keep the Bureau of Land
Management from approving a needed rail spur to the facility. The Utah Congressional delegation, with
newfound support from Nev. Senator Harry Reid is also supporting efforts to build
intermediate storage facilities where nuclear plants are already located.
: The Department of the Interior must secure two
layers of administrative approval before PFS can continue with the nuclear
storage facility: 1- the BLM must issue the right of way for the rail spur to
pass through BLM lands to the reservation, and 2- the Bureau of Indian affairs
has to approve of the Goshute’s lease of their tribal lands to PFS.
The State of Utah has filed two lawsuits to challenge
the storage facility. 1-The state has filed a petition of review with the US
court of appeals to the DC circuit to challenge the NRC’s ruling as “arbitrary
and capricious.” 2- The state has filed a petition for certiorari with the
Supreme Court to consider an appeal of a lower court ruling to throw out
several state laws concerning Private Fuel Storage, but on Monday, December 5,
2005 the Supreme Court denied Utah’s request to hear its case.