NRC tells Utah officials it can't ban importation of nuclear waste

Monday, April 13, 2009

By Brock Vergakis
Associated Press
and Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Deseret News

Reiterating a position it took more than a year ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told a Utah congressman and other representatives that it lacks the authority to prevent foreign radioactive waste from coming to Utah.

The commission, in an April 9 letter to Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said the Atomic Energy Act doesn't distinguish between domestic and foreign waste, and as long as it can be imported safely and someone is willing to take it, the commission can't keep it out.

"They're saying there's no distinction between domestic and foreign waste, something we have been saying all along," said Jill Sigal, with Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions.

The company is seeking a license to import up to 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste from Italy's shuttered nuclear power program. After processing in Tennessee, about 1,600 tons would be disposed of in the western Utah desert.

"The commission has said whether it comes from Texas, Illinois or Canada or Italy that there is no difference," Sigal said.

EnergySolutions has an import license pending before the commission, which has deferred acting on the license until a ruling is issued in a federal court case in Salt Lake City.

In the suit, EnergySolutions is challenging the regulatory authority of the Northwest Compact - of which Utah is a member - to preclude the company's Clive, Utah, facility from accepting the waste.

Matheson and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sent the NRC a list of questions asking what would happen if the court rules in EnergySolutions' favor. All three serve on the committee that oversees the NRC.

The NRC declined to give an opinion on the court case and said Utah is responsible for regulating the company's facility.

"The NRC will issue a license to import low-level waste if it determines that issuance of the license would not be inimical to the common defense and security or constitute an unreasonable risk to the public health and safety and that an appropriate facility has agreed to accept the waste," the NRC wrote.

EnergySolutions has already scored a victory with a partial ruling from the court, which said its facility is not considered a "regional disposable facility." Left to decide is whether the Northwest Compact still has the authority to say what waste can be received - even if EnergySolutions isn't considered a regional facility.

Matheson and Gordon also are sponsoring a bill - which has yet to get a hearing - that would ban the importation of low-level radioactive waste unless the nuclear material originated here or the waste was imported for a strategic national purpose.

They contend that the country should restrict space at its dumps to disposal of domestic waste. The site in Clive is the only low-level radioactive waste facility available to 36 states, although EnergySolutions says capacity there isn't an issue.

The company has agreed to limit the amount of foreign waste accepted in Clive to 5 percent of its remaining capacity.

While Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., has said he doesn't want foreign waste coming here, state law doesn't prohibit it.

Passing such a law would be difficult in Utah, where the company is a major donor to conservative state lawmakers and it employs a relatively large number of lobbyists.

One of the company's former lobbyists is U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. Bishop's district includes the EnergySolutions facility. He has said a national policy on foreign waste isn't needed and that states should decide whether to allow foreign waste.

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