Under the radar: Canada's, Mexico's radioactive waste comes into Utah

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Federal regulators gave their blessing to low-level radioactive waste from Canada and Mexico that is now buried in Utah.

But Utah never got the memo. Nor did the regional radioactive waste oversight organization Utah belongs to.

That foreign waste could be imported into Utah without the knowledge of state and regional officials might seem hard to believe in such a highly regulated business as radioactive waste. But federal regulators saw no reason to keep Utah in the loop on such small shipments.

Dane Finerfrock, director of Utah's Radiation Control Division, checked his files Monday and found no letters giving a heads-up about the imports, despite the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's stated policy of keeping "those affected" in the loop. There is no listing for such letters to Utah and the Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-level Radioactive Waste on the NRC's online information service.

"Obviously, the governor [Jon Huntsman Jr.] says it's not alright" for foreign waste to be disposed of in Utah, Finerfrock said. "The only way we can know is if we are notified, so obviously it's not alright."

Steve Dembek, an import-license officer for the NRC, said the agency does not notify Utah and the compact when the residual waste is "not significant."

"If we know there is a significant amount of material, we do [advise] them," he said.

What amount of waste is considered insignificant? "We don't have an exact number for that," he said.

Federal regulators did not notify Utah regulators and the compact about three import licenses granted between 2004 and 2006. They OK'd waste to be imported in two separate licenses from a Mexican nuclear power plant, involving more than 1,000 cubic feet of waste, and one license for some 6,000 tons of waste from Canada. The records did not indicate how much of that material would wind up buried at EnergySolutions' Tooele County site.

The difficulty of controlling the flow of foreign waste has come into focus over the past year, since EnergySolutions Inc. applied for an import license to manage waste from dismantling Italy's commercial reactors.

In defending its plans to dispose of about 1,600 tons of low-level waste from Italy, the company has cited an 8-year record of safely handling foreign waste disposal from Taiwan, France, the United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico.

The disposal meets Tennessee and NRC regulations, the company says. And it does not include high-level waste, such as used reactor fuel.

The Northwest Compact in May clarified its 17-year agreement with EnergySolutions, noting foreign waste is not allowed at the EnergySolutions site even if other regulators permit foreign waste to be re-labeled U.S. waste after being processed.

The firm has asked a federal judge to rule that the compact has no authority over the Tooele landfill. And the NRC said it is sending import application notices to the compact and the state now as a courtesy.

Ken Niles, assistant director of Oregon's nuclear safety office and that state's representative on the compact board, noted that Congress gave compacts the authority to turn away waste from outside compact borders. And it is "a problem" if federal regulators are allowing the waste to come to Utah over the compact's objections. "If anyone has had any doubts of what our position is, there shouldn't be any doubt now."

Peter Jenkins, chairman of Utah's radiation board, said the board was unaware the NRC was approving these foreign waste imports. The board is currently reviewing what role it should be playing.

"At the end of the day," he said, "who has oversight over whom, and who has authority over what - we are going to ask those questions and try to get some answers."