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Melvin: Let AZ take US nuclear waste

Melvin: Let AZ take US nuclear waste

State senator says his idea means money for schools

  • Updated

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 side has a sweetener he believes will get some people to change their minds: Money.

He wants to pitch Arizona as the place where all the nuclear plants in the country send their spent nuclear-fuel rods. A longtime proponent of nuclear energy, Melvin 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.

He said the technology to reprocess that fuel is already available to reduce the amount of waste that eventually will have to be buried in the state and is in use in France. 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 written 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 be debated on its own.

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

"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 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 that was designed to create a permanent storage facility.

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

Melvin said one of the options is to reduce the size of the problem - literally.

The French reprocessing system reuses 95 percent of the waste, leaving just 5 percent that has to be buried.

But Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said Melvin's figures 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 and storage is where there are underground salt deposits - like Picacho Peak, Safford, Holbrook and Kingman, or near Luke Air Force Base in northwest Maricopa County.

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

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

Melvin also said fears of nuclear power and waste are overblown, triggering community opposition that has blocked past storage-facility sitings.

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

Bahr acknowledged 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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