Leavitt Questions Safety of Nuclear Waste Casks

Leavitt Questions Safety of Nuclear Waste Casks

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gov. Mike Leavitt has asked federal officials to investigate the safety of the steel and concrete casks that would store high-level nuclear waste on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's inspector general already has begun a probe into a whistle-blower's allegations that the casks, in use at several nuclear sites, are flawed.

The investigators recently agreed to review concerns raised by former quality assurance auditor Oscar Shirani after nuclear regulatory staff ignored his warnings about faulty welding and other safety shortcomings.

"I strongly urge your office to investigate this matter promptly and thoroughly," said Leavitt in a July 11 letter. "It is not only a matter of grave importance with respect to the safety of Utah citizens, but a national concern for all citizens along transportation routes."

Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of eight electric utilities, wants to store waste from nuclear reactors on the impoverished Skull Valley reservation, 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. PFS says the waste would stay in the desert up to 40 years, until a permanent storage facility could be built at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

The reservation is surrounded by a low-level nuclear waste dump, a chemical weapons incinerator and storehouse, an Army chemical and biological testing range, the Utah Test and Training Range and in the flight path for jets from Hill Air Force Base.

The casks, made by New Jersey-based Holtec International, would be used to store the lethally radioactive waste. The 20-foot tall, 11-feet wide casks would be stacked in rows on what is essentially a concrete parking lot on the tribe's reservation.

The casks' design already has the NRC's approval. Their structural integrity was key to the licensing board's decision that the facility probably could withstand a big earthquake without releasing radiation.

When the licensing board begins its new inquiry, the focus will be on what would happen if a fighter jet on a training mission crashed into the slab where the casks would be stored above ground, untethered and in the open air.

The company is out to show the casks could withstand the impact of a crashing F-16 traveling over Skull Valley along the flight path between Hill Air Force Base and the Utah Test and Training Range.

The licensing board's inquiry will focus on the design of the cask. In contrast, the NRC investigator's probe pertains to actual construction of the cask, which already is being used to store nuclear waste outside several reactors.

Shirani, the auditor turned whistle-blower, said he found nine quality problems with the workmanship of the Holtec casks during an audit he did in 2000 for his former employer, Exelon. Among his claims: "unqualified welders" did some of the work; the neutron shields had holes; and some materials were unacceptably brittle.

Shirani said he lost his job after complaining about the Holtec containers, which were in use at Exelon reactors.

The NRC inspector general agreed to look into Shirani's concerns two weeks ago, after a request by two public-interest watchdog groups.

PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin restated her company's confidence that the Holtec containers meet the NRC's safety requirements and noted that they have a good record without any significant safety problems.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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