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Is used nuclear reactor fuel headed for the reservation?

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It's a question that has dogged the nuclear industry since the 1970s: What can it do with spent fuel rods?

The radioactive waste, eventually slated for permanent storage at a still unfinished site in Nevada, has been piling up, mostly at the nation's 65 commercial nuclear power plants. Late Tuesday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gave its blessing to a solution: a storage site on a barren patch of a reservation in Utah that's home to some 25 native Americans, next to a proving ground for chemical and biological weapons, and near an Air Force bombing range.

The NRC licensed what would be the nation's largest - and only private - nuclear-waste storage facility. A consortium of utility companies would store for up to 40 years some 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel for an industry rapidly running out of space.

But the plan has powerful opponents, including Utah's entire congressional delegation and its governor, who have developed a multipronged attack plan to try to beat back this latest effort.

"Our position is this represents public policy at its absolute worst," says Mike Lee, general counsel to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. "What these people want to do is take spent nuclear fuel and put it above ground in casks in a valley that's located 40 miles immediately upwind from Utah's only population center. To make matters much worse, this aboveground, open-air facility lies immediately under the low-altitude flight path of 7,000 F-16s a year en route to a bombing range."

But it is precisely those conditions that make the reservation land unfit for most anything else, says Leon Bear, chairman of the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation. In addition, Utah has outlawed gambling in the state, so the Goshutes can't open a casino. That is one reason the tribe leased 840 acres of its sprawling reservation for an undisclosed sum to Private Fuel Storage (PFS), the consortium that would house the nuclear fuel rods.

"What do they think we can do, sell bottled water?" Mr. Bear asks.

Standing on a hill, where small mounds of snow-covered Great Basin sage and rabbit bush stretch as far as the eye can see, he explains his vision. It includes the return to this 18,000-acre reservation of many of his small band of 123 Goshutes. They would join the 25 or so who currently live here because the deal would provide enough money for decent housing, education, a cultural center, and healthcare - and spin off several jobs as well.


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