A few weeks ago, EnergySolutions executive Dan Shrum withdrew his name from consideration for a seat on the state's key nuclear waste policy board. That came a day after a scathing legislative audit concluded that state regulators have done a woeful job monitoring EnergySolutions' nuclear waste dump 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.
The news offers an opportunity to highlight a troubling reality: Gov. Gary Herbert has in fact repeatedly favored EnergySolutions since he came into office, turning his back on a record of strong, independent leadership from Gov. Jon Hunstman that kept the company in check, protecting Utahns from the dangers of nuclear waste.
EnergySolutions sought throughout Huntsman's tenure to push the envelope for nuclear waste coming to Utah: to dispose hotter nuclear wastes, to dramatically expand the size of their one-mile-square disposal site and to dump foreign nuclear waste. And, at each turn, Huntsman stood tall to protect Utah.
In 2005, Huntsman signed into law a ban on hotter B&C nuclear wastes. In 2007, the governor forced EnergySolutions to sign an accord aka the Huntsman Agreement limiting the size of the Clive facility. In 2008, he used his veto in a regional radioactive waste body to block Italian nuclear power plant waste from coming to Utah. He then went to court to fight off an EnergySolutions lawsuit challenging that veto authority.
When he announced the Huntsman Agreement, the governor offered a telling quote outlining his philosophy that Utah shouldn't allow polluting industries to do whatever they want. "We are changing the culture of what is acceptable in the state," Huntsman told reporters.
Unfortunately, Herbert is also changing the culture for the worse. In 2010, when EnergySolutions proposed blending banned B&C wastes with less-hot material and dumping the resulting mixture in Utah, Herbert went on the record opposing the practice.
But then, by late 2011, he embraced it when his administration approved blending. That decision even allows the company to start dumping blended waste before doing a technical safety study. Never mind that allowing blended waste would effectively gut the 2005 ban on B&C wastes, or that blended waste would triple or quadruple the total radioactivity coming to Utah.
When asked to explain his flip-flopping embrace of EnergySolutions' blended waste bid, Herbert offered a lame excuse: If the waste is class A when it comes to Utah, there's nothing he can do. That's untrue: Using the same regional waste veto that Huntsman used, he can keep any waste out he wishes with a stroke of a pen.
Herbert's feeble rationale also ignores the strong record of his predecessor. Huntsman fought to keep foreign waste out, even though that would have been class A by the time it arrived in Utah. He fought to limit the size of the dump, even though the waste that fills it is nearly all class A.
Huntsman recognized that all nuclear waste is dangerous and that Utah shouldn't be the world's, or the nation's, sole dumping ground.
Which brings us to August when Herbert announced the appointment of an EnergySolutions executive to the Radiation Control Board. The public's response was strong and immediate: How could the governor think it wise to appoint a company representative to the very body charged with making the rules that govern EnergySolutions?
The administration at first brushed off those concerns, until the audit forced EnergySolutions to abandon ship. Even then, Herbert's response to the outrage which greeted his Radiation Control Board appointment was telling. "An appearance of a conflict of interest … was causing me some problems," he told reporters at his monthly press conference.
Unfortunately, the appearance is nothing compared to the sad reality that Utah's governor has gone from a true guardian to nothing more than a fox guarding the henhouse.
Christopher Thomas is the executive director of HEAL Utah, a nonprofit environmental group.