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One of the Rocky Mountain West's most influential forces added its voice Thursday to the campaign to block trainloads of radioactive waste from coming to Utah.
But it remains unclear if even the powerful word of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can truly help stop those trains.
In a rare statement on public policy, church President Gordon B. Hinckley and his two counselors said moving and storing high-level nuclear waste creates 'substantial and legitimate public health, safety, and environmental concerns." The statement went Thursday to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as an official comment on a right-of-way request.
"It is not reasonable to suggest that any one area bear a disproportionate burden of the transportation and concentration of nuclear waste,' the statement continues. 'We ask the federal government to harness the technological and creative power of the country to develop options for the disposal of nuclear waste.'
In the fall, the LDS Church announced through a spokesman its objections to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision to license the proposed nuclear waste storage on the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation in Tooele County. The site would be a kind of parking lot big enough to hold nearly all the reactor waste ever produced by the nation's 103 nuclear power plants.
But the Thursday statement comes directly from the church's First Presidency and it is broader, apparently covering the federal government's plan to bury reactor waste forever at Yucca Mountain, Nev. And it specifically endorses alternative technologies, echoing what has become a mantra among political leaders who, along with Salt Lake City-based nuclear services company EnergySolutions, have been touting nuclear fuel reprocessing lately as an answer to the nation's waste problems.
Not since the statement opposing the MX nuclear missile deployment in Utah 25 years ago has the First Presidency spoken out so directly and forcefully on a public policy issue not involving the church's usual moral targets, such as gay rights or gambling.
The church's May 6, 1981, statement on MX is widely credited with killing the missile plan.
Richard Davis, a political science professor at church-owned Brigham Young University, could only remember the First Presidency speaking out on three other public policy issues, all in the 1960s: communism, reapportionment and the John Birch Society.
'They've been very protective of Utah as a home for LDS people,' said Davis, recalling the MX statement. 'And I think they realize they have an enormous power to affect the community, the home base for the LDS community. I think they would probably see this as being a good citizen, good for the neighborhood.'
Davis also wondered if the statement would be read aloud from Utah pulpits this weekend. 'They will probably prompt church members to take action by taking action.'
The three sentences on high-level waste shipping and disposal came just days before the BLM's MondayMay 8 deadline for commenting on a crucial application for the storage site. Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of nuclear utilities, must have the permit for a train-to-truck transfer station alongside I-80 at Rowley Junction in Tooele County.
More than 2,000 Utahns already have sent in comments. The Alliance for Unity, a leadership group based in downtown Salt Lake City, and the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce have joined the state delegationUtahns in Congress in rallying Utahns to provide their input.
But PFS spokeswoman Sue Martin questioned whether the First Presidency statement would have much practical impact. The BLM, she noted, can only consider technical issues, such as whether it meets the bureau regulations and whether granting the license would go against the public interest.
'If this [three sentences] is all the statement is, it doesn't begin to address the criteria or the issues the BLM raised,' she said. 'And it's really no different that anybody else saying, 'we don't want it here.'Ê''
Martin said reprocessing is not a feasible solution for the nation's nuclear waste problem and probably will not be for at least a decade. Meanwhile, after an 8-year review, the PFS site has been deemed safe.
'We are what we are,' she added. 'We are not trying to play any kind of political game.'
Political leaders who have been fighting the federal government's nuclear waste plans and advocating reprocessing welcomed the LDS Church statement.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the nation's highest-ranking Mormon in Congress, heard about the statement late Thursday. 'He says he did not lobby the church but he was very pleased to see the statement,' said the senator's spokeswoman, Sharyn Stein.
Michael Lee, counsel to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said: 'Every little bit helps. 'The church is speaking for a lot of people in Utah and out of Utah, in the [Mormon] church and out of the church.'
Greg Hopkins, senior vice president for communications at EnergySolutions, said his company had not lobbied church leaders either.
But, he said, 'We are aligned with the Church's statement.'