Rethink on Utah used fuel storage project

04 August 2010

A project proposed by a consortium of US utilities to store used nuclear fuel at an Indian reservation in Utah, shelved after Department of the Interior (DoI) officials denied necessary approvals, could be revived after a court overturned the DoI's rejection. 


Following delays by the Department of Energy (DoE) to fulfil its obligation to start accepting used nuclear fuel in the late 1990s for disposal in a national repository at Yucca Mountain, eight large US electric utility companies formed the Private Fuel Storage (PFS) consortium for the purpose of developing and managing a temporary storage facility for used nuclear fuel. PFS members are: Xcel Energy, Genoa Fuel Tech, American Electric Power, Southern California Edison, Southern Nuclear Co, First Energy, Entergy and Florida Power and Light.


PFS entered into an agreement with the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians in 1997 to lease some 820 acres (332 hectares) of its reservation in Utah in order to build and operate the facility. The lease runs for 25 years.


Proposed PFS storage facility
An artist's impression of how PFS' proposed temporary storage facility could look (Image: PFS)


In 2006, after some eight years of administrative and adjudicative proceedings, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued PFS with a licence to store up to 40,000 tonnes of used fuel at the Skull Valley facility. The licence was valid for 20 years. Under its plan, PFS was to transport the fuel by rail to within 24 miles (38 kilometres) of the facility. The fuel, contained within casks, would then be transported by road to the storage facility.


When PFS entered into the lease it expected that by the time the lease ended and the NRC licence expired, the DoE would have begun operating a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain that would have taken the used fuel stored at Skull Valley. In line with this, the terms of the lease specified that PFS would have been required to have removed all the used fuel from Skull Valley when the lease and licence expired.


In order to begin operating the Skull Valley storage facility, PFS applied to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - an office within the Department of the Interior (DoI) - for a right of way across tribal land for radioactive transport to the Skull Valley Reservation. In addition, PFS requested approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs - another office within the DoI - for its lease agreement with the Skull Valley Band.


However, the DoI took over both PFS' application for right of way and approval of the land lease. In 2006, DOI officials denied the right of way request, saying that there remained too many unanswered questions about the project. It also disapproved the lease agreement.


In July 2007, the Skull Valley Band and PFS filed a complaint in the US District Court against DoI officials asking the court to review and overturn the DoI decisions, which they called "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, not in accordance with law, without observance of procedures required by law, and otherwise fatally flawed." PFS said that the complaint laid out "a chronology of events and communications that indicate the DoI's decisions were not based strictly on the merits but were a response to substantial political pressure brought, directly and indirectly, upon DoI officials by members of the Utah Congressional delegation and others."


In late July, the District Court overturned the decisions by the DoI and remanded PFS' right-of-way application and lease of tribal land to the DoI for further consideration.


With the Yucca Mountain project now on hold and utilities facing a lack of capacity at their existing on-site used fuel storage facilities, the need for alternative arrangements for storing used fuel is greater than ever. The court ruling could now lead to PFS reviving its project, should the DoI subsequently reach a favourable decision.


Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the DoE was supposed to begin taking used fuel from nuclear energy facilities from 1998. In April 2010, sixteen electricity utilities, together with US nuclear industry organisation the Nuclear Energy Institute, filed a lawsuit against the DoE seeking a suspension of payments into the country's nuclear waste fund. The federal government has also been sued by a number of utilities, which have been awarded compensation totalling some $1 billion by US courts.


Researched and written 

by World Nuclear News