Nuclear, Reactors

Federal report calls nuclear storage site safe

By JIM WOOLF

SALT LAKE CITY, Oct. 7, 2000 (The Salt Lake Tribune)—A proposed Utah storage facility for highly radioactive waste from America’s nuclear power plants cleared another hurdle Friday.

The staff at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a 391-page report that concluded the proposed above-ground facility would meet all federal safety standards during “normal, unusual and accident conditions.”

Among the hazards considered were dropping a storage cask, flood, fire, lightning, earthquake and tornadoes. In addition, hazards from nearby activities also were considered, including explosions, aircraft crashes, and the crash of a cruise missile.

Friday’s “safety evaluation report” is one of two key documents that will be considered when NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board decides next year whether to issue a permit for the storage facility. The other document is the environmental impact statement. A draft of the environmental study, which was issued last summer, found no significant problems. The final version of the environmental study is expected in February.

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt used the release of the safety report to restate his “strongest possible opposition” to the project.

“If it’s so safe, why do they want to move it out here?” he said.

The governor’s staff had not yet reviewed the new safety report, but he predicted it will be as flawed as NRC’s draft environmental study.

“The NRC has such a conflict of interest here,” said Leavitt. “Given that they are the agency feeling the pressure to find a solution to this problem [of storing the nation’s nuclear waste], and they also are the regulators, it makes this an expected development.”

The storage facility would cover 820 acres on the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute reservation, located about 50 miles west of Salt Lake City.

It is being proposed by Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight electric utilities with nuclear power plants. They would ship the waste to the area by truck or train, and store it in above-ground casks made of concrete and metal. Since the facility is proposed for tribal lands, the state has no direct regulatory control over the project.

“Of course we’re pleased that this stage of the process has been completed and the NRC staff felt the facility could be operated safely,” said PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin. “This was an important step in the licensing process.”

One of the most interesting issues analyzed in the NRC safety report is the potential for a cruise missile being tested at the Utah Test and Training Range veering off course and crashing into the storage facility. This could spread radioactive debris through the area. Leavitt and other opponents have used this scenario to argue against building the facility at this site.

But the NRC staff concluded that such a crash “is possible only if there is a series of multiple failures of redundant safety features.”

The Utah Test and Training Range is an area of restricted airspace in western Utah where military pilots train and missiles are tested. PFS’ proposed storage facility is beneath the testing area. The cruise missile contains a sophisticated guidance system that allows it to fly low and follow the terrain en route to its target. Although most of the cruise missiles tested in Utah are unarmed, the report said tests with live warheads are conducted “once or twice per year.”

The safety report said about 150 cruise missiles have been tested on the range, and 21 of them have crashed. But it said the flights are carefully planned and monitored, and errant missiles can be destroyed quickly. It said all but one of these accidents occurred within a half-mile of the projected flight path.

If the storage facility were built on the Goshute reservation, the NRC report said all cruise missile flights would be kept at least two miles from the site.

The report said a 1997 accident in which a cruise missile slammed into the trailers of researchers studying cosmic rays near Dugway occurred because the trailers were not marked on the maps by those who planned the test.

“Mission planners would have programmed the flight path of the missile differently had they been aware of the existence and location of the [cosmic ray] observatory,” said the report.

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