WASHINGTON - Rep. Jim Matheson is pushing legislation to block about 1,600 tons of radioactive Italian waste from being buried in Utah's west desert, but his colleagues from the Beehive State aren't yet behind his efforts.
Asked last week whether they support the legislation that would ban importing foreign radioactive waste for disposal in the United States, Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch along with Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Cannon hedged.
None of them say they back the legislation, which would, if passed, bar Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions from importing 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste from Italy to be processed in Tennessee, with a leftover 1,600 tons stored in the the company's west desert facility.
Bishop, who lobbied for the waste disposal company when it was known as Envirocare before he was elected to Congress, hasn't taken a position on the bill. But he sees the issue as something states should deal with, according to his chief of staff, Scott Parker.
"Rob is a strong proponent of states' rights, and always has been, so I think he's hesitant on any issue - be it education or land use or waste - to tell the state what it can or can't do," Parker says. "So in the end, he will fully support whatever the state decides to do - but ideally it should be the state's decision."
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and the state's Radiation Control Board, through the Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management, declared their formal opposition to the Energy Solutions proposal May 8.
Matheson said Friday he hasn't tried to convince the delegation yet, but he is building support from within the Energy and Commerce Committee and plans to go from there.
"If they take a look at the evidence that came out this week [in a Tuesday committee hearing], I would imagine they would come around and support it," Matheson said.
And, he added, this isn't just a Utah issue. There are national aspects here about what the United States wants to allow as far as radioactive waste storage.
"There is tremendous momentum for this issue," Matheson said.
Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., is the lead sponsor of the bill, which has 10 other co-sponsors from both parties. Matheson is the only one from Utah.
Other members of the delegation said it was too early to say whether they will back the legislation.
Sen. Bob Bennett says the current national policy, set nearly 50 years ago, allowed the importation of foreign, low-level waste, and Congress has allowed governors the power to either approve or deny the storage. But he's still not convinced the bill Matheson is co-sponsoring is the right action.
"Before any changes are made to this long-established policy, Congress must carefully examine and review all the potential implications to our national security and energy development," Bennett said.
Rep. Chris Cannon's office said the Utah Republican hasn't taken a position on the bill. He understands the concern of Utahns about foreign waste being dumped in the state, but says the nation can't ignore the need to develop more "clean, safe nuclear power and that won't happen until we deal with the waste and reprocessing," according to spokesman Fred Piccolo.
"Where the waste comes from is not as important as the need for a coherent policy that allows nuclear power to be a part of meeting our energy needs," Piccolo added.
Sen. Orrin Hatch says his support hinges on whether the waste can be transported and stored safely, and whether the foreign waste will take space needed for domestic needs.
But, he said in a statement, "So far, I haven't seen evidence that we have a problem in either area."