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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal regulators on Monday blocked a proposal by private utility companies to store high-level nuclear waste on an Indian reservation in Utah's west desert, citing the dangers posed by a nearby Air Force training range.
Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of eight electric utilities, had sought to store uranium rods from nuclear reactors in casks on the Skull Valley Goshute reservation, 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, until a permanent storage facility could be built at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Utah officials objected to the proposal, raising a series of safety concerns, including the threat posed by military aircraft and the potential for earthquakes and other problems.
The Air Force flies thousands of training missions each year over the sprawling Utah Test and Training Range near the Skull Valley Goshute reservation.
"There is enough likelihood of an F-16 crash into the proposed facility that such an accident must be deemed 'credible.' The result is that the PFS facility cannot be licensed without that safety concern being addressed," the Atomic Safety Licensing Board -- an arm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- said in its 222-page opinion.
Monday's ruling came after a hearing on the issue last year.
Private Fuel Storage argued that pilots could steer their planes away from the nuclear waste before a crash occurred, but the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board was unswayed and said more needs to be done to address the concerns.
The PFS proposal can be reconsidered if the group can convince the Air Force to reduce or reroute the number of flights over the reservation or if PFS can show that the concrete and steel casks where the waste would be stored could withstand an F-16 crash.
PFS can also appeal the licensing board's decision to the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
In a statement, PFS said it is reviewing the decision to determine how it might be able to address the board's concerns.
"This partial decision is another indication of the rigorous standards that must be met to build and operate this facility," said Scott Northard, project manager for PFS. "While we are disappointed with this initial partial decision, we continue to believe that our facility meets the federal regulations."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called the decision "a tremendous victory for safety and sensibility over recklessness and short-term profits."
"I have never thought that this proposal was in the best interests of the citizens of Utah, and I think this decision bears that out," Hatch said. "Frankly, I question whether they will ever be able to ensure that the proposed site will be safe to store nuclear waste, considering the location."
Commercial nuclear power plants around the country are running out of space to store the spent reactor fuel. Storage pools at many plants are full, so the companies sought to find some remote area where the radioactive waste could be stored until the Energy Department builds a permanent storage dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said putting the nuclear waste on the reservation could have impeded or jeopardized the Air Force training missions and threatened the health and safety of area residents.
"As I've said throughout this debate, locating a nuclear waste repository below military airspace is a shortsighted and dangerous way to proceed," Bennett said. "Air Force test pilots agree, residents in the area agree and I'm extremely please to learn today the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board agrees. I strongly urge the NRC commissioners to uphold this ruling."
The Skull Valley Band of Goshutes, an impoverished tribe whose reservation is in the barren desert 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, sought the economic benefits of the project and signed a deal with PFS in 1997 to pursue the plan.
The reservation is tucked between a low-level nuclear waste dump, a chemical weapons incinerator and storehouse, an Army chemical and biological testing range and an Air Force bombing range.
The proposed storage facility would essentially be an 820-acre concrete parking lot with rows of 4,000 concrete casks with 2 1/2-foot-thick concrete and steel walls encasing a total of 40,000 metric tons of uranium.
Critics of the Goshutes' effort, including Gov. Mike Leavitt, praised the decision.
For Goshute leaders, "this was about getting cash for exploiting the safety of their neighbors," Leavitt said on a conference call with reporters from Washington, D.C.
Leavitt said he offered state help in exchange for the tribal leaders' abandoning the waste dump. He said he offered to help the 30 members on the reservation get jobs, education and transportation, but tribal leaders "have never been interested."
Dianne Neilson, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the project was just too risky and called the board's decision "a watershed event."
"We knew the arguments were good. But in the past when we thought we had persuasive arguments we haven't necessarily prevailed," Nielson said.
Advocacy groups were ecstatic.
Claire Geddes, director of the legislative watchdog group Utah Legislative Watch, said the decision was "probably the best news I've heard in a long, long time. That makes a huge difference in the state. Nobody expected that."
"I feel like I want to party!"
The state had spent millions of dollars in legal fees and enacted a series of laws to block the plan, but they were overturned by U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell last July, who said regulating nuclear waste was a federal responsibility.
"We believed if we could get a fair hearing on the facts, we would be successful -- and it appears that's what happened," said Marty Stephens, speaker of the Utah House of Representatives.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)