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The federal government has decided not to fight a court ruling that might allow the Skull Valley Goshute Indians to revive their plans to store reactor waste on their Tooele County reservation.

Two months ago, U.S. District Judge David M. Ebel threw out a pair of U.S. Interior Department decisions that, in effect, led many Utahns to believe that the storage site plans were dead four years ago.

Interior officials' decision to pass up on an appeal by Friday's deadline has angered Utah leaders, who had urged the agency to vigorously contest the ruling. With the feds' inaction, the issues in dispute now return to the agency "for further consideration" in light of the judge's ruling.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert said he believes it is inappropriate to have high-level nuclear waste stored 50 miles from downtown Salt Lake City.

"Governor Herbert has pledged to fight this at every opportunity," said Angie Welling, "which includes renewing the state's objection before the Department of Interior."

Tim Vollmann, an attorney for the Goshutes, noted Ebel's ruling repeatedly called Interior's decisions "arbitrary and capricious" — that is "unlawful." The decision not to fight the court's determination, he said, signaled the Interior Department's attorneys must have agreed an appeal was doomed.

"There was absolutely no chance of prevailing on appeal," Vollmann said in a telephone message Monday. "An appeal would have been a waste of everyone's time, especially the court's time."

The Interior Department last week declined to comment on what it would do about the ruling. A request for comment to the Utah office of the Bureau of Land Management was not returned Monday.

Utah lawmakers had pressed Interior to decide against two crucial approvals sought by the Goshutes, a tiny tribe that developed its plans for nuclear storage for more than a decade as an economic development opportunity.

In one case, an agency official rejected a lease agreement between the Goshutes and their nuclear-industry partners, a consortium of utilities called Private Fuel Storage. The companies helped the tribe secure a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license, the first for a high-level nuclear facility in 30 years. The lease had been tentatively approved by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs years earlier.

The other key decision centered on a request to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for a right-of-way to build a train-to-truck transfer facility needed to get the waste from the tracks along Interstate 80 to the storage site on the reservation, 23 miles away.

Proponents of the storage site needed both approvals to operate a kind of a long-term parking lot for used nuclear reactor fuel. The nation's nuclear plants would rent space for up to 40 years on a 100-acre pad to store up to 44,000 tons of reactor waste in steel-and-concrete casks above ground until the federal government furnished long-promised disposal.

Although the judge seemed to say the Interior Department was sloppy about the way it made its decisions, the governor and members of the Utah congressional delegation insist they will prevail on the substance of the case.

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the facts behind the department's decisions "remain as strong as before."

"There's no escaping the fact that storing this high-level waste next to a live bombing range is contrary to the public interest," he said, adding that "a technical error" was behind the judge's ruling. "It's an oversight that can easily be corrected, and I'm confident the Department will do so."

U.S. Rep. Rob. Bishop, a Republican whose district includes the proposed site, also cited the bombing range as a key concern, despite a ruling by the NRC"s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board that the danger of a release related to the adjacent Utah Test and Training Range was negligible. Bishop said he would continue working to achieve a favorable outcome for Utahns and the military.

"I have always said that this battle would not be won overnight," he said, "and I'm committed to fighting this all the way through to the very end — regardless of how long it takes."

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has prepared a letter that will go out to the Interior Department today, expressing his view the agency should correct any errors identified by Ebel and reissue the decisions with the same conclusion.

"Congressman Matheson is very disappointed by the decision not to appeal," said spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend. "And he will be communicating with the Department of Interior on what next steps need to take place to produce a record that will allow and support the Interior Department to deny the lease and the right of way."

High-level nuclear storage

The Skull Valley Band of Goshutes several years ago joined with a consortium of utility companies to propose what is essentially a parking lot for reactor waste to be stored in steel and concrete casks. The proposal, which had been granted a license by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was blocked by the Interior Department. A federal judge has slapped Interior for its decisions in a move that appeared to breathe new life into the project. Interior let a deadline for appeal pass.