No Italian nuclear waste coming to Utah, for now

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Nuclear waste from Italy won't be rolling into Utah anytime soon.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Monday it is postponing a decision on whether low-level radioactive waste from Italy can be buried in Tooele County. In order to grant a license, federal regulators must be sure that the waste has somewhere suitable to go, and they won't have that assurance unless a federal court ruling clears the way, the NRC said.

A court decision is not expected for more than a year.

Bill Sinclair, deputy director of environmental quality for Utah, said the NRC's delay has the effect of upholding the power of the eight-state "Northwest Compact" to block Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions from disposing of foreign waste at its mile-square disposal site in western Utah.
"That's important," said Sinclair, deputy director of environmental quality for the state and Utah's representative on the Northwest Compact governing committee.

The Italian waste question has transformed over the past year into a larger debate over who oversees low-level nuclear waste in the United States, where EnergySolutions has taken all but a small percentage of the nation's low-level waste for years.

EnergySolutions requested a federal judge's ruling last spring. The company says the Northwest Compact's authority does not extend to the Utah disposal site, because it is privately owned and operated, free to do international business.

But the state and the compact say Congress set up the regional waste program to control the flow of all low-level radioactive material in and out of the eight-state region. Under a contract that has been in effect since 1991, the compact has permitted EnergySolutions to operate a low-level waste site within compact boundaries, but foreign waste is not specifically allowed.

Jill Sigal, EnergySolutions' senior vice president for government relations, called the postponement "very reasonable."

"You can't read into it one way or the other quite frankly," she said.

"We maintain our view that our license application meets the requirements for the NRC to grant the license."

More than a year ago, EnergySolutions asked NRC for a license to import 20,000 tons of low-level waste from Italy, process most of it in Tennessee and then haul 1,600 tons of waste to Utah for disposal. Italy, which began dismantling its nuclear reactors two decades ago, has no low-level waste disposal of its own.

Congress also has stepped into the fray. Democratic Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah and Bart Gordon of Tennessee have introduced legislation to ban most foreign waste.

"What we have is a company asking to dump foreign waste in this country, even though there's no state willing to take it, " said Matheson, "and it's created a policy vacuum that leaves us vulnerable to becoming the world's nuclear garbage dump."

Matheson said the delay will give the bill's supporters time to get the import ban signed into law.

The NRC said in its order Monday that it would await the court ruling unless the company finds some other way to dispose of the foreign waste.

The delay means NRC will not decide whether the state of Utah and anti-nuclear groups can have a formal hearing on the matter.

The NRC fielded more than 2,900 mostly negative comments on the license request.

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