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WASHINGTON - The Transportation Department is making preparations for its role in overseeing shipments of spent nuclear fuel to Private Fuel Storage's proposed nuclear waste dump in Utah.

The department asked Congress to approve four new staff positions at a cost of about $100,000 each, who would review transit plans for the waste and ensure they comply with existing regulations governing hazardous materials shipments.

The department's request indicates steps are already being taken to prepare for shipments to the waste dump, even though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet granted a license to the facility. A license application filed by Private Fuel Storage, a group of electric utilities, is in its final stages of review and a decision is expected by the end of the summer.

Private Fuel Storage plans to store 44,000 tons of high-level waste in steel and concrete casks on the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes Indian reservation until the Energy Department opens a permanent dump, presumably at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

Somehow, the language that ended up accompanying the House transportation bill when it passed June 30 was an approval for the Transportation Department to hire two staffers to handle legal challenges over shipments to the waste site.

A Transportation Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that is not what the department was seeking and he was not sure how the request morphed into the language that ended up accompanying the House bill.

The single paragraph in a 252-page report caught Utah's congressional delegation by surprise, with House members and the state's new lobbyist unaware it had been tucked into the report when the House passed the bill.

As it is written, the House passage gives the Transportation Department permission to hire two employees to handle anticipated legal challenges stemming from the shipment of the nuclear waste to the Skull Valley site.

The state has made clear that it will go to court to try to block the waste dump, but no lawsuits have been filed, which made the language in the House bill puzzling, said Dianne Nielson, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

As it is written now, the provision in the House bill makes no sense, said Sen. Orrin Hatch.

“If the government were to defend itself in a lawsuit - a lawsuit which doesn't exist, by the way - the Department of Justice would handle it, not Transportation. It needs to come out,” he said. “This should not be in the Senate bill, and it should not survive a conference with the House.”

The Transportation official said the department anticipates going back and helping to rework the language before it passes the Senate.

Sen. Bob Bennett's spokeswoman, Mary Jane Collipriest, said that because of ambiguity in what came out of the House, Bennett will make sure the provision does not make it into the Senate bill when the committee considers it next week.