The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group for the U.S. nuclear industry, is in the process of selecting at least two rural U.S. communities to serve as potential dump sites for highly radioactive spent fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants.

The NEI refuses to identify the communities being considered or even say what region they're in. But while a representative of the group has said New England is not a candidate, he refuses to say the same about the South.

"We're in a very preliminary stage," Marshall Cohen, who's heading NEI's selection process, tells Facing South. "It's not appropriate to characterize geography yet."

Cohen recently disclosed to a reporter from Connecticut that her region was not home to the communities being considered, according to Linda Gunter of the Maryland-based watchdog group Beyond Nuclear. NEI initially considered seven sites and narrowed the choice to two, Beyond Nuclear reports. The communities under consideration already have nuclear installations of some kind.

The sites would serve as storage facilities for the spent fuel currently being stored on the grounds of nuclear power plants until -- and if -- the Department of Energy's controversial Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste dump opens in Nevada. Yucca Mountain was supposed to begin accepting spent fuel in 1998 but has faced numerous delays due to legal challenges and other problems. There is still no official opening date set for that facility.

In March of this year, the Las Vegas Sun reported that NEI "was quietly talking to communities across the nation to see if they are interested in hosting a temporary waste storage site -- perhaps not just a dump, but a nuclear industrial park that could support ancillary businesses and bring in jobs."

Beyond Nuclear criticizes the secretive site selection process as undemocratic.

"NEI and the two mayors should tell their communities and the neighboring towns they are being targeted for radioactive waste traffic," says Paul Gunter, Beyond Nuclear's director of reactor oversight. "This is not a decision that should be made behind closed doors but in the full light of day."

But Cohen blames Beyond Nuclear for the secrecy, alleging that if the targeted communities were disclosed the group would "immediately scare and frighten them with misinformation."

Besides, he adds, after NEI selects the sites they still have to undergo the official licensing process, which offers an opportunity for public input.