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Nuclear Waste Import Standoff

The notion of a "nuclear renaissance" was raised this week at a congressional hearing about whether the United States should take other countries’ nuclear waste for disposal. The phrase keeps turning up in rhetoric by both politicians and nuclear executives, who say that nuclear power is making a comeback.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality met Tuesday to discuss proposed legislation that would ban importation of nuclear waste. The bill, introduced last week, aims to stop a company from importing thousands of tons of radioactive waste from Italy for processing and disposal in the United States. Both supporters and opponents of the bill say the future of the American nuclear industry is at stake.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

The industry asserts that a nuclear rebirth is inevitable because nuclear power is clean and the public is increasingly concerned about green energy use. One of the most vocal companies handles the dirty side of nuclear. EnergySolutions, America’s largest company for low-level radioactive waste cleanup and disposal, has been a strong advocate of nuclear energy’s environmental benefits.

Many environmentalists argue, however, that the need for such a company is proof of how dirty nuclear energy really is. They point to the waste generated by nuclear power plants in America and dangerous uranium mining, both potential hazards to human health and the environment. EnergySolutions is now the focus of growing attention because of its waste management plan that involves importing thousands of tons of foreign nuclear waste for disposal in a Utah facility –- all in the name of “clean.”

The plan has ignited a firestorm of opposition, but EnergySolutions won’t back down. If passed, the proposed legislation would void the company’s proposal. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah) are the bill’s co-sponsors.

"For almost 30 years, Congress has been attempting legislative solutions to the national need for sufficient disposal capacity of [low-level radioactive waste] generated here in the U.S.," Gordon wrote in a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "There is no indication … that there was any intention the U.S. would ever become a welcome dumping ground for foreign-generated radioactive waste."

EnergySolutions wants to import from an Italian company 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste, process it in a Tennessee facility and dispose of 1,600 tons of it in the company’s landfill in Clive, Utah. The plan has outraged Utah residents, who don’t want their state to become a landfill for the world’s waste. The Clive facility is one of just three facilities that takes all U.S. low-level radioactive waste. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman strongly opposes the proposal, and the Northwest Compact -– the regional panel that oversees low-level radioactive waste disposal –- has already voted against it.

But the company isn’t giving up without a fight. It has filed a federal lawsuit saying that the compact doesn’t have jurisdiction over its Utah landfill, which is a private commercial facility. The lawsuit also says that making distinctions between foreign and domestic waste violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In the past, EnergySolutions has been able to import foreign waste without facing major obstacles. However, the Italian shipment would be so much larger that it set off alarms. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now gathering public comment and says it will make a decision in the coming months.

“We’ve been saying,” said NRC spokesman David McIntyre, “that it will probably be some time, mid to late summer, when we might have a decision; all things being equal — which they may not be.” McIntyre says pending legislation throws a “wild card” into the mix. If Congress sides with Matheson of Utah, who says EnergySolutions wants to make his state a “dumping ground,” it could change how the NRC deals with all radioactive waste.

Environmentalists are already concerned about America’s ability to deal with its own nuclear waste, much less that of other countries. Nuclear disposal facilities have a limited amount of space. That’s why environmental advocates say taking other countries’ waste is imprudent.

EnergySolutions senior vice president for government relations Jill Sigal says that importing foreign waste can’t make the United States a dumping ground, because U.S. nuclear plants their send waste abroad as well.

"The world is round but in many respects the world is flat," said Sigal. "When you take your plastic bottle from your water and put in your recycling bin in the driveway, it goes to China to be recycled. China doesn’t plan to send that waste back here, they take care of it over there. We’re one world. Just like we depend on other countries to recycle, there are times when other countries may need to ask the U.S. to give a helping hand."

In helping other countries deal with their waste, she says, EnergySolutions is doing its part to facilitate the use of a “clean” energy all over the world. “We think that nuclear is clean, safe, reliable, non-carbon-emitting, and we think it’s a very important part of the mix of energy sources that need to be there…” she said.

Not everyone agrees. Already about 1,700 people have written the NRC opposing the company’s proposal. The public comment period ends June 1.

Despite the waste nuclear power generates, EnergySolutions insists that it is clean. “I don’t think anybody disputes that nuclear is a clean source of energy,” said Sigal.

But many environmental groups do dispute that claim. “We certainly don’t think that nuclear energy is a clean energy in the slightest,” said the Sierra Club spokesman Josh Dorner. “I find it interesting that a disposal company is saying that nuclear energy is clean when we have literally thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste that we don’t have a solution for.”

The Italian plan only proposes importing low-level radioactive waste. But Sierra Club’s Dorner says the United States needs to take care of its own low-level waste first. “We haven’t even solved our own waste problem, so taking waste from other countries is not the best idea,” he said.

Dorner and other environmentalists warn that it won’t be long before current disposal facilities run out of space. The Clive, Utah, facility, for example, will reach full capacity sometime between 20 to 33 years, according to data from the Government Accountability Office.

"Importing foreign waste reduces finite capacity," said Gordon at this week’s hearing. "Congress needs to act to stop it."

At the hearing, Congress began looking into the importation of foreign nuclear waste, especially in light of EnergySolutions’s Italy proposal. But this wouldn’t be the first time a company bought nuclear waste from other countries. That’s why the company’s CEO Steve Creamer says he’s surprised by the negative attention his plan is receiving.

There was no backlash, for example, in 2006 when EnergySolutions received a license to import the same kind of waste from Canada for disposal in the same Utah facility.

The NRC says proposals to import low-level radioactive waste may be on the rise. “A proposal to import low-level radioactive waste is not very common," said McIntyre, the NRC spokesman, "but it has been a little more frequent over the past 10 years or so. In the last few years, anecdotally, it seems like applications might be picking up a little bit in terms of their numbers. After all, this country has some expertise in processing that kind of waste.”

All that could change if the ban on foreign waste is passed. If Congress decides to start limiting radioactive waste, it could send a message about how “clean” nuclear energy really is.

But EnergySolutions is sticking to its guns that its role in the nuclear energy cycle is a clean one. In an interview with Environment & Energy TV, CEO Creamer said, “We think what we’re doing is being good stewards of the earth. And we find, as we talk to a lot of people, that they understand that.”

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