The US Department of Energy (DOE) has identified a site within three miles of the boundary of one of the nation's most scenic national parks as a potential site to bury nuclear waste.
So far all that's been done is the drilling of a few exploratory holes and conducting of some seismic studies. But the issue of whether to place a nuclear waste repository just outside Canyonlands National Park in Utah already has begun to tear apart the tender political fabric of the local community and is developing into a statewide issue. And, because the site is so close to a park that many environmentalists rank as second only to the Grand Canyon in scenic grandeur, national environmental groups are also becoming alarmed.
The proposed burial site here is a small part of an overall problem: What should be done with the lethal and long-lived radioactive byproducts of the Atomic Age. Today, some 760,000 cubic feet of highly radioactive commercial and defense wastes exist in the US. By the year 2000, DOE estimates this waste will grow to 2 million cubic feet. Currently, federally funded researchers are investigating three types of geology in order to determine which is best for underground radioactive waste disposal. One is the basalt formation beneath the Hanford Reservation in eastern Washington where large quantities of nuclear weapon's program wastes are stored. A second is the concrete-like tuff under the Nevada Test Site where underground nuclear tests are conducted.
These two locations have the advantage of being within large federal reservations with a long history of involvement with nuclear materials. This will not be the case for the third type of geology -- an underground salt formation. Several locations are being studied: Canyonlands, a site in west Texas, and a third in Mississippi. Next spring DOE will decide in which of these sites it will sink a 10-to-12 foot diameter shaft for further investigation.
By 1987, DOE intends to issue an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the three sites and determine which is preferable for the repository. As now conceived, this will be the first of several regional waste dumps that will handle military and commercial reactor wastes.
The Utah salt formation that DOE is investigating is part of a much larger area of underground salt called the Paradox Basin which extends into Colorado. Opponents to the Canyonland's site argue that the Colorado salt formations could be used instead. When DOE responds that the Colorado salt is either too deep or in 500-year flood areas, they are not convinced.
''I'm concerned that the DOE is making their decisions more on political grounds than on those of public health and safety,'' says Utah state Sen. Frances Farley, a member of the task force that Utah Gov. Scott M. Matheson has set up to monitor DOE's activities.
''In all the states where we are working those who oppose the program have the same feeling that a political decision has been made. . . . This simply is not the case,'' responds Leslie Casey, the program engineer.
Still, these doubts have helped to bitterly divide the local community.
County commissions in the area actively, even zealously support the repository. Six years ago the Grand County commissioners wrote a letter to DOE asking it to consider the area for this purpose. And earlier this month, commissioners in adjacent San Juan County sent Energy Secretary James Edwards a letter adding their support.
''We've been in the uranium industry back to the days of the Curies,'' says Ray Tibbets, a Grand County commissioner who typifies those backing the repository.
Tall, lean, and intense, Mr. Tibbets, who owns a bargain clothing store in Moab, hands out pronuclear tracts to reporters interviewing him. He freely acknowledges that he has a personal, economic stake in the currently depressed uranium industry. He sees much of the opposition as the work of antinuclear power forces.
''If (the Canyonlands site) meets the requirements of safety and the geology is there, then we're for it,'' he explains. He argues that it will compliment the park, and that the park has grown too big since it was first created.
Because of the controversial location, Governor Matheson has said that before he supports a repository he must be convinced that it is the best site in the country. And even then he will demand extensive mitigation. Some of the ideas being offered include powering the repository with banks of solar cells, burying or concealing 60 miles of railroad line, and pumping the millions of tons of excavated salt to the Pacific Ocean to be dumped.
Matheson's press secretary says the governor is far from convinced by what he has been shown thus far. According to a state law written by state Senator Farley and passed last year, Governor Matheson and the legislature must both give their approval before radioactive waste can be dumped in the state.
Although the repository has local support, public opinion polls for the state as a whole suggest that Utahans are no more anxious to have the nation's nuclear wastes buried in their backyard than is anyone else.