WASHINGTON - Mired in red tape, the head of Private Fuel Storage turned to an offshoot of Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force for help in making the firm's proposed nuclear waste storage facility in Utah a reality.
In a letter, Private Fuel Storage Chairman John D. Parkyn asked the White House Task Force on Energy Policy Streamlining to force the Defense Department to complete a study on whether putting the nuclear waste near the sprawling Utah Test and Training Range might hinder the preparedness of the Air Force, which uses the range in Utah's west desert for combat practice.
Until the congressionally mandated study is completed, the Interior Department cannot approve Private Fuel Storage's request to build a rail line across federal land to the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation, where the company plans to store 40,000 tons of radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear power plants.
The failure of the Department of Defense to undertake this study, as directed by law . . . offers a prime example of a federal agency's inaction thus delaying or stopping the orderly, ongoing licensing of a facility that is key to the continued production of electricity from nuclear power generating facilities throughout the nation, Parkyn said in his letter to the energy task force.
The 2001 letter was among thousands of pages of Energy Task Force documents obtained recently by the Natural Resources Defense Council through an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the vice president.
Parkyn's plea appears to have prompted a meeting between Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles and Tod Neuenschwander, Private Fuel Storage's lobbyist at the time. Griles calendar shows he met with Neuenschwander on Nov. 1, 2001, to discuss the waste storage proposal.
It also generated a letter from the director of the task force, Virginia Stephens, to Interior Department officials, asking what needed to be done to move the Private Fuel Storage project forward.
Dana Perino, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the letter to Interior was essentially a form letter and the task force sent similar letters to other agencies to gather information on issues brought to its attention.
In its response to the task force, the Interior Department's associate deputy secretary, James Cason, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to license the PFS facility and the Bureau of Indian Affairs needs to sign off on the lease with the Goshute tribe before the Bureau of Land Management can OK the rail line. Neither step is expected to be taken until at least late in 2004.
Perino said the task force has not taken any further action to assist Private Fuel Storage.
The Defense Department still has not completed its study on the potential effects of the dump on the Air Force range. Pentagon spokesman James Turner said the Air Force is preparing the report internally for the Defense Department and it is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
We have certainly tried in a number of different ways to encourage the Department of Defense to do this study, said PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin. We'd like to see it done and over with, because it is just another part of the process that has to be done before we can carry through with our project.
The closest the Pentagon has come to taking a position on the waste dump came in a 2002 affidavit by Gerald Pease Jr., associate director for ranges and airspace for the Air Force, who said that the Utah Test and Training Range is a vital and irreplaceable part of the test and training infrastructure at the Department of Defense.
Degradation of our operational test and training capabilities would be unacceptable. Consequently, any proposed location must not restrict current UTTR operations, Pease said.
Attorneys for Private Fuel Storage and from the state are scheduled to go before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in August to argue the final issues remaining before the NRC makes a licensing decision.
Parkyn's letter was the only request for assistance that the task force received from nuclear energy producers. There was no mention of it in the White House Task Force on Energy Policy Streamlining's report issued in December 2002, although it was included in the public comments to the task force.
At roughly the same time that PFS sought aid from the White House, Utah's senators were working to stop the dump.
In July 2002, Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett met at the White House with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and agreed to vote to build a permanent nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev., in exchange for assurances the senators felt would prevent the PFS' Skull Valley dump from being built.