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Crime pays

Published July 13, 2013 1:01 am

Radiation fines must be much stiffer
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

First rule of law enforcement: It should cost more to break the law than to obey it.

When making laws and regulations that affect individuals — at least those individuals too poor to hire lobbyists and lawyers and make campaign contributions — that principle is generally respected. The penalties associated with everything from running a red light to armed robbery are intended to cause people to pause and reflect, do a cost-benefit analysis, and decide to keep to the code.

But, all too often, the laws that are supposed to guide the behavior of rich people, corporations and other "job-creators," are treated as, well, more of a guideline.

When the point of an enterprise is to maximize profit, and when a rational examination of the choices makes it clear that the cost associated with obeying the law is greater than the cost of violating it, businesses are likely to conclude that, in Dickens' words, the law is an ass.

Which is why the proposal before the Utah Radiation Control Board — to double many of the fines that could be levied for violations of the state's rules — is both overdue and far too small. The fines that companies face for violating the laws that protect our environment must be stiff enough that they push the company to avoid the violations, not just admit guilt and pay the fines.

Case in point: EnergySolutions.

In 2011, the state levied fines totaling some $98,000 on the nuclear waste disposal site and on some of the companies that had shipped radioactive waste to that Tooele County facility. That was because some of the waste that had been deposited at the EnergySolutions landfill contained a higher concentration of radioactivity than state law allows.

State regulators had not discovered those violations, but were informed of them only when EnergySolutions dropped a dime on itself. Chances are that the company did so in part because the penalty for those self-reported violations was, relatively speaking, another dime.

Yes, the fines piled up to $98,000. But, by paying up cheerfully, EnergySolutions avoided what would have been the proper response to the discovery — digging up the offending shipments and sending them somewhere where such materials are legal. But that would have cost the company some $2 million.

It was like making a profit of a bit more than $1.9 million on an investment of $98,000. Where else can you get a return on investment like that?

Unless the penalty structure gets a lot more threatening, the answer to that question is, only in Utah.




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