BOISE, Idaho - Eight Western states on Thursday derailed EnergySolutions' plans to import nuclear cleanup waste from Italy and bury some of it at the company's Utah landfill.
Members of the Northwest Compact on Low-level Radioactive Waste voted unanimously here to tighten the compact's contract with the Salt Lake City nuclear waste company to make it clear that foreign waste is not permitted. They also closed a loophole that has allowed past shipments of foreign waste to be buried in Utah after being processed at the company's Tennessee processing plant.
"It was an appropriate step in the process," said Larry Goldstein, the compact chairman and a regulator with the Washington state Department of Ecology.
Bill Sinclair, deputy director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and the state's longtime top regulator over radioactive waste, pointed out that the compact simply clarified that there is no specific arrangement between the compact and the company to allow foreign waste. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announced two weeks ago he would use Sinclair's veto power on the panel to block the Italian waste import until a national policy can be set.
"EnergySolutions can ask for anything they want," said Sinclair after the meeting. "We just said they have to come and ask for an arrangement" for foreign waste.
The move comes as the U.S.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering the company's request to import 20,000 tons of Italian waste, process it at a plant near Oak Ridge, Tenn., sell the recovered metal for shielding and dispose of 1,600 tons of waste at the mile-square landfill in Tooele County, about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.
The company asked a judge Monday to declare that the compact does not have authority over the EnergySolutions site in Utah, which is the only one of three in the nation that is not government-owned. In other words, EnergySolutions is arguing that the compact's Thursday decision is irrelevant.
"We believe the courts will uphold the position that the Northwest Compact does not have authority over our [Tooele County] facility or the authority to interfere with interstate commerce at a private facility," company spokesman Mark Walker said in a statement following Thursday's decision.
Val John Christensen, general counsel for EnergySolutions, assured the eight panel members that the company has plenty of disposal capacity available to handle the five or six rail cars of waste from the Italy nuclear-program cleanup. He also restated the company's pledge to limit its foreign waste imports to five percent of the Utah site's disposal capacity.
He said the company has been safely importing waste from foreign companies for years and that this time the debate has become emotional because so many people have a "not-in-my-backyard" attitude.
The company also told the panel why waste from Canada, Belgium, France and other nations has gotten a new radiological pedigree after going through the Tennessee processing plant, which the company bought in 2006. In short, the company said, the ash leftover is a new waste created from batches of radioactive waste from several sources that are scientifically indistinguishable.
Congress set up the regional compact system in the 1980s to encourage states to collaborate on managing the flow of low-level waste and the development of disposal sites. EnergySolutions, back when it was called Envirocare of Utah, got permission from the Northwest Compact to accept low-level waste in 1991.
Since then, the company's size and scope has ballooned.
Low-level waste is significantly less radioactive than spent reactor fuel or transuranic waste. Beginning in July, EnergySolutions' Utah site will be the only one available in the United States for low-level waste generated in 36 states. And just the least radioactive type of waste, dubbed "Class A," is permitted in Utah. Critics of EnergySolutions' plans have said allowing the Italian waste import would be a national policy shift with international implications. A measure introduced in Congress - co-sponsored by Utah Democrat Jim Matheson - would ban future imports, except in rare cases.
John Urgo of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah thanked compact members and Huntsman on Thursday.
"The actions of the compact and the influence of Gov. Huntsman today confirm that it was never the intent of state or federal law to open up Utah and the U.S. to the world's nuclear waste," he said. "We can all breathe a sigh of relief that someone was finally willing to reign in their global nuclear ambitions."