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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah is planning its challenge to a federal ruling that would allow shipments of nuclear waste to an impoverished American Indian reservation 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
Gov. Jon Huntsman said Tuesday he would "stand in the middle of the railroad track" to stop the shipments, although a court battle seems much more likely.
In his biggest challenge since taking office in January, Huntsman took the vow as state lawyers prepared a case asking a federal appeals court to overturn the decision by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Utah has 60 days to appeal Friday's decision and is assessing whether it will find more sympathetic or critical judges at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver or the District of Columbia Circuit, said Denise Chancellor, an assistant attorney general for the state.
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is equally furious over the use of the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation as a ground-level storage depot for spent nuclear fuel rods. He called it dangerous and reckless, with F-16 fighter jets from Hill Air Force Base making 7,000 runs yearly over the reservation to the Utah Test and Training Range.
Utah made its strongest argument over the chance one of those jets could crash into a canister of highly radioactive fuel, or that terrorists could make a target of the concrete pad.
The NRC rejected the arguments Friday after eight years of hearings and deliberations by its Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which split 2-1 on the safety questions. The dissenting judge, a nuclear engineer, questioned assumptions used to assess the likelihood of a jet crash.
The NRC then voted 3-1 to approve the license for Utah's version of Yucca Mountain, the troubled federal project to build a nuclear-waste repository in Nevada. The dissent was made by Commissioner Gregory Jaczko, who questioned the lack of a definitive analysis of the spread of radiation from a breached container.
The split on both boards opens a legal argument for Utah, which can argue in court that the NRC didn't satisfy its own safety standards for a nuclear-waste repository.
"Some deference will be given to NRC but they have to comply with their own regulations, and I think we can demonstrate that while there have been a lot of hearings and computer modeling, there hasn't been a thorough analysis of the radiation consequences if and when a storage cask gets hit by an F-16 or a bomb," Chancellor said. "They basically looked at this without any standards whatsoever."
Hatch has insisted the Skull Valley proposal was "dead on arrival." The state's congressional delegation fired off a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton asking her to block construction of a rail spur across federal land to the reservation.
Utah's leaders also plan to lobby the Bureau of Indian Affairs to withhold its approval for a lucrative lease that Private Fuel Storage offered the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians.
Asked Tuesday how the state would respond to an earthquake or other disaster hitting Skull Valley, Huntsman flatly said, "They won't be successful." He was referring to Private Fuel Storage, the consortium of nuclear-powered utilities looking for a temporary way station for nuclear waste.
If it comes to it, Huntsman said he would personally block rail shipments at Utah's border.
"But meantime, we have an executive-branch strategy, we have a legislative strategy, we have a legal strategy," Huntsman told radio station KCPW on Tuesday. "All of them we're deploying to the best of our ability. I discussed this with everyone from the president right on down, and I will continue to harass and harangue until we get some action on it."
The NRC decision drew a rare rebuke from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which issued a statement last week complaining the project lacked scrutiny.
"The first thing that came to my mind is: 'What has the past eight years been about, if it hasn't been about intense scrutiny?"' Private Fuel Storage spokeswoman Sue Martin told The Salt Lake Tribune.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)