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WASHINGTON - In a significant reversal, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid dropped his opposition Tuesday to a plan to create a new Utah wilderness area that could block high-level nuclear waste from being stored in the state.

The newfound support for the effort to block nuclear waste may give the plan its best chance for passage after years of frustrating defeat.

Utah's congressional delegation is seeking to create the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area near the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes Indian reservation, where Private Fuel Storage, a group of electric utilities, wants to store 44,000 tons of nuclear fuel.

Such a designation would keep the Bureau of Land Management from approving a needed rail line to the site. The proposed wilderness provision has in the past been stymied by several senators, including Reid.

"While I continue to have concerns about the Cedar Mountain wilderness proposal, of even greater concern is the threat posed by deadly nuclear waste," Reid said in a statement. "After speaking with Utah leaders, including Sen. [Bob] Bennett and Gov. [Jon] Huntsman, I have agreed to drop my opposition to this proposal. With the proposed Goshute nuclear waste site moving forward, timing has become critical and the state of Utah will need every available resource to fight this project."

The language to designate the wilderness area is included in a House-passed Defense Department policy bill, which is before the Senate this week.

Utah's senators met resistance when they tried to add the provision to the Senate bill, but the delegation says inclusion in the House bill gives it a strong chance of survival - a chance boosted by Reid's involvement.

"It is a significant help," said Rep. Rob Bishop, who led the fight in the House. "I think he realizes very clearly that both Western states have a great deal in common and something negative that could happen in Utah could just as easily happen in Nevada. . . . I think it helps us move the issue forward and helps us to be more successful."

PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin said it remains to be seen what impact Reid's move will have. She said the wilderness would not stop the PFS plan, just force the utilities to unload the rail cars and deliver the waste to the site on trucks.

"Any reasonable person can see the safest way to make these shipments to the reservation would be via rail down the west side of Skull Valley . . . so to have the Utah delegation opposing this safe method of shipment is almost bizarre," she said.

For the past several weeks, Reid has been working behind the scenes to help resolve Democrats' concerns with the proposal.

Bennett thanked Reid for his support, but said Reid "was not the primary problem."

"There may well be other senators who have opposed it in the past who are yet to be heard from and we should keep working as hard as we can and hold any celebration until the final report is written," Bennett said in a statement.

The leading opponents of the Cedar Mountain proposal are Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Reid's colleague, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

In September, Bennett reached out to Reid, admitting that he made a mistake when he voted to build a permanent nuclear dump beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. In the speech, he endorsed Reid's plan to store the waste at the reactors that produced it until technology is available to reprocess the material.

Bennett's reversal on Yucca helped lay the groundwork for Reid's change of heart Tuesday. Huntsman, Bishop and Reps. Chris Cannon and Jim Matheson also support Reid's proposal.

"I think it's a good example of how, to some extent, we're in the same boat," said Michael Lee, Huntsman's general counsel. "We're in a similar situation with Nevada and I think for that reason it's good to have Nevada's leaders working with leaders from our state to try to keep spent nuclear fuel from being stored here."

Sen. Orrin Hatch has insisted that rejecting Yucca and joining Reid would be a slap in the face of the Bush administration, which he says holds the key to defeating PFS.

Hatch and Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell met Tuesday with the president and chief executive officer from XCel Energy, the largest PFS shareholder, to try to convince the company that the Skull Valley plan should be scrapped.

Hatch argued that other alternatives are available and could have government support.

"When you're a utility and you're moving upstream against the future chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the administration, you know it's time to take a very critical look at where you're heading," XCel CEO Dick Kelly said in a statement released by Hatch's office.

Hatch promised to "pull out every stop in the book" to block the PFS plan.

The fight moves to court

The state of Utah went to court Tuesday in hopes of overturning the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's license for the proposed PFS storage site. In a move expected long before the NRC's decision to license the Private Fuel Storage facility in September, lawyers for the state asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to take up the case. They would like the court to take a fresh look at some of the 70 rulings made against the state in its administrative fight against the licensing. "We think this [waste storage] is an ill-fated, ill-considered plan - public policy at its worst," said Michael Lee, counsel to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. "We are excited to present the arguments we have to the D.C. Circuit." PFS wants to build a kind of parking lot for reactor waste on its way to permanent disposal, presumably at the U.S. Energy Department's proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. The 100-acre pad, located on the Skull Valley Goshutes Reservation about 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, would hold 44,000 tons of reactor waste in containers stored above ground. - Judy Fahys