Despite Unanswered Questions, Nuclear Agency’s Licensing Board Approves Nuclear Waste Dump in Utah

Feb. 24, 2005

Despite Unanswered Questions, Nuclear Agency’s Licensing Board Approves Nuclear Waste Dump in Utah

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  A ruling today by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) in favor of a proposed nuclear waste dump in Utah is a poor decision, said Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS).

The board issued a split decision to reject an appeal by the state of Utah, meaning that the commercial, above-ground, “temporary” repository is closer to gaining final approval. The NRC usually follows the board’s advice.

If the NRC gives final approval, it will come despite opposition from some members of the Skull Valley band of Goshutes and a lack of a long-term nuclear waste management strategy for the United States. The waste will have to be shipped mainly from the eastern United States in nuclear waste casks that have not been subjected to adequate physical testing and have been the subject of allegations of a slew of quality assurance violations that threaten their integrity. Further, there has been inadequate preparation and training of first responders for a large-scale movement of dangerous high-level waste from around the country.

The licensing board handed down a scrubbed version of the decision   with “a general summary” for public consumption — 30 pages shorter than the full version — due to ongoing concerns about terrorism. 

“This sanitized version shows that NRC’s addiction to secrecy continues to stymie appropriate public involvement,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s energy program.  “The final insult from the licensing board comes in its unwillingness to release even its rationale for deciding in favor of Private Fuel Storage (PFS), due to the fact that some of the information therein is categorized as ‘safeguards.’

“The idea that shipping tens of thousands of tons of high-level nuclear waste to Utah for a pit stop before transporting it further to a hypothetical permanent repository will improve the safety and security of the waste is ludicrous,” said Hauter.  “It’s ironic that the ASLB rejected Utah’s appeal by saying there wasn’t any chance of an accidental plane crash into this proposed facility, yet the board then cloaked its decision in secrecy for fear of an intentional attack.”

There’s no guarantee that this dump will be as temporary as PFS maintains.   The proposed permanent home for the waste, the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, is mired in lawsuits, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has yet to even submit a license application for the Yucca dump to be constructed and put into operation. 

“If Yucca never actually opens—a distinct possibility—PFS will either become a de facto permanent repository or the waste will have to be shipped back to its place of origin, only to be shipped yet again once a final solution is implemented,” said Kevin Kamps, a nuclear waste specialist with NIRS.   “Nearly 20 years of pushing for this site have focused on Native American lands and there remain numerous unresolved environmental justice concerns involving the Goshute community.” 

The multiple shipments may be made even if Yucca does open, because current contracts between the utilities and the DOE stipulate that waste sent to Yucca must be newly packed – a condition that won’t be met if the waste is stored for decades at PFS first.  Before approval of a license for PFS is granted, the DOE needs to resolve the conflict over whether it can take the waste directly.

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