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Senator: Send used nuclear fuel rods here

Senator: Send used nuclear fuel rods here

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PHOENIX -- State Sen. Al Melvin admits that not everyone thinks having a nuclear waste processing plant and burial site in Arizona is a great idea.

So the Republican from Tucson's far-north suburbs has a sweetener he believes will get some people to change their minds: Money.

He is proposing to make Arizona as the place where all the nuclear plants in the country send their spent nuclear fuel rods. Melvin, a long-time proponent of nuclear energy, said the failure of the federal government to set up a planned high-level radioactive waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada creates an opportunity for Arizona.

More to the point, Melvin said the technology to reprocess that fuel is already available -- and being used in France -- to reduce the amount of waste that eventually will have to be buried in the state. And he said Arizona has many underground salt deposits that would make a perfect place for storage.

What Melvin said he also sees is a financial opportunity -- and not just in the construction jobs and ongoing employment.

He figures the state could charge $50,000 a ton for nuclear waste brought here. With 2,000 tons a year, Melvin said, that would generate $100 million a year. And Melvin said the law would be crafted so all that is earmarked for schools.

But the idea of helping to finance education by making Arizona the home for nuclear waste is getting a decidedly chilly reception from the community it seeks to help.

Janice Palmer, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said she does not want the need for more money for education to overshadow what she said are legitimate environmental and safety issues. She said the question of whether Arizona should be processing and storing nuclear waste should stand or fail on its own.

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, was more blunt in his assessment.

"It sounds like kind of a gimmick and a little bit piecemeal," he said. "It just comes off sounding really like a Band-Aid approach."

Anyway, Morrill said, it's not like the amount of money is that significant. He said that adding up not only spending cuts by the Legislature and other lost tax revenues from the recession, "we're down in the billions range, not the hundred million range."

"I've got to believe that if we really think public education is a priority, we can do better than this," Morrill said.

Melvin said he believes his plan can stand on its own. He said the funds for education are just a bonus.

At the heart of the issue is that the more than 100 commercial nuclear reactors in the country have spent fuel rods. And all of the utilities have been paying into a fund which was designed to create a permanent storage facility.

But when plans for the Nevada site fell through, that left nothing.

Melvin credits President Obama for forming a special task force to look at the issue. And he said one of the options is to reduce the size of the problem -- literally.

He said the French are leading the way with reprocessing of nuclear fuel. The result, said Melvin, is that 95 percent of the waste is reused, leaving just 5 percent that has to be buried.

"If the state of Arizona agrees to do this, we could build a similar facility like the one in France, but updated, to recycle spent fuel in the United States," he said. Melvin said that also would help his other goal of building more nuclear reactors.

But Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said Melvin's figures about waste tell only part of the story.

"In the process of it, you contaminate more things," she said, like materials and chemicals. They, then, become radioactive and also have to be buried.

Then there's the question of where.

Melvin said a logical location for reprocessing would be where the final wastes can be stored. And that means near one of those underground salt deposits.

He said that means places like Picacho Peak, Safford, Holbrook and Kingman. There also is is a major salt deposit near Luke Air Force Base in northwest Maricopa County, with smaller ones at the southeast corner of the county and in Graham County.

But Melvin said he is so confident of the safety of the process that he would not mind having such a facility near the Saddlebrook subdivision where he lives in southern Pinal County -- if there were a salt deposit there.

Melvin also said the facility would be good for economic development, particularly for the rural areas where it would likely be sited.

He puts the cost of such a facility at about $20 billion, taking up to a decade to building and employing about 18,000 construction workers. Once complete, Melvin said, it would need 5,000 full-time workers and create another 30,000 jobs for suppliers.

Bahr, however, said she doubts residents of most communities would want nuclear wastes being processed and stored there, no matter how many jobs it might create.

She said it was that local opposition which eventually killed the Yucca Mountain site. And Bahr said that does not even count objections from those who live in the communities through which the spent fuel would have to pass by truck or rail.

Melvin, however, said fears of nuclear power and waste are overblown.

"A lot of lies and half truths have been perpetuated over the last 30 years," he said. The French experience aside, he said the Navy powers its ships with nuclear energy and has done so for years without incident.

Bahr acknowledged that spent fuel rods are piling up at nuclear plants around the country. But she figures the safest thing, at least in the short term, is to leave them where they are, with the power plants already having security, rather than have them on the road where they could be taken by a terrorist.


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