A utility consortium planning to store 44,000t of high-level radioactive waste on the Skull Valley reservation 80km southwest of Salt Lake City in Utah received a boost after two Atomic Safety Licensing Board rulings set aside the last of Utah’s administrative objections.

The rulings cleared the way for the NRC to approve a licence to build and operate the facility, which will be sited in the flight corridor of some 7000 F-16 flights a year. The licensing board voted 2-1 to set aside its own earlier decision that the possibility of an F-16 fighter jet crashing into the spent nuclear fuel facility posed unacceptable risk of releasing radiation. The decision argued that even if a jet did crash into the open-air array of 4000 172-t storage casks, their durability meant the chance of radioactive release would not exceed federal risk standards.

The licensing board also dismissed a state argument that the waste stored temporarily in Utah in welded casks would not be accepted for transfer to a federal repository. Private Fuel Storage (PFS), a consortium of eight utilities led by Xcel Energy, American Electric Power and Entergy, signed a lease to build 500 concrete pads on 100 acres of desert eight years ago for the development of the $3.1 billion project. PFS could begin accepting shipments of spent fuel rods by 2007.

If the NRC issues the licence, the plan must still get final approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management. PFS hopes to begin construction within the next year with the facility expected to take about two years to build.