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SANDY - Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller defended the new name on his basketball arena - and EnergySolutions' business practices - this week, saying he researched the company and nuclear waste handling.
Miller said the low-level radiation stored by EnergySolutions is "not a real threat to you." He also confirmed an escape clause for "extreme situations" permits either side to end the deal, which changed the Delta Center in Salt Lake City into the EnergySolutions Arena.
Environmental groups and Jazz fans have criticized associating the arena with a company that transports and stores nuclear waste. Miller said he had expected criticism.
"What people don't want to give us credit for, the ones that are the detractors, is that we've gone in and looked at what they do," he said, "what kind of business citizens they are, how they conduct business, what kind of jobs they create and what kind of risks they create."
His conclusion? "There's a lot of stuff on our roads, our highways and our railroads that are more dangerous" than low-level nuclear radiation.
"You wouldn't want to build your house on it, but it's not a real threat to you in the way higher levels of nuclear waste would be," Miller said. "And that's all they intend to deal with."
He declined to elaborate on what would constitute an "extreme situation" that could end the deal, announced Nov. 20.
Miller spoke about the naming agreement Thursday at the dedication of the state's new police academy, to which he and his wife, Gail Miller, donated $21 million.
EnergySolutions and Miller have not said what the storage firm paid for the 10-year agreement. Miller again declined to give a figure Thursday, saying only that the sum is more than his academy donation. Steve Creamer, EnergySolutions' CEO, said the move is part of a campaign to educate the public that disposing of low-level radioactive waste is not dangerous.
While considering the offer, Miller said, his entertainment business received information from EnergySolutions and sought to verify it with independent sources. Miller also received written input from scientists, he said.
Miller said he has heard complaints from Utahns, but when he asks them about nuclear waste and storage, they cannot provide answers.
"I would ask them before they just hit a panic button when they hear the word 'nuclear waste' that they at least understand what it is that's done there, stored there, what that business is about," he said.
He later added: "I want to listen and learn and see what [people have] got to say if it's rational."
HEAL Utah, which demonstrated as Jazz fans entered the arena Wednesday, wants to take Miller up on that offer. Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based environmental group, argues the name appears to be an invitation to the world.
"We might as well hang a big arrow over the state that says, 'Dump your nuclear waste here,' " Pierce said.
She also questioned Miller's research. "Getting the facts about nuclear waste from them is like getting the facts about tobacco from Philip Morris," she said. Other opposition has included an Internet petition at http://www.dontdumpthejazz.com. Site founder Ryan Steffes, a 24-year-old Utah Valley State College student, said he dislikes having the arena associated with a company bringing waste into Utah.
A secondary issue: "It sounds terrible for a sports arena," Steffes said.
Steffes acknowledges he is not well educated about nuclear waste - but he questioned whether Miller's research was aimed only at justifying the name. "It just seems like they're covering their bases," Steffes said.
The new name has inspired nicknames that include "The Tox Box," "The Melt-A Center" and "The Dump."
Miller, who made much of his fortune owning auto dealerships, said he's concerned about American dependence on oil and wants the country to seek alternatives, such as ethanol, solar and wind power.
"I think nuclear energy has to be considered as a relevant energy source for the next 100 years and beyond, and at some point we develop the other technologies," Miller said.
The arena had been named for Delta Air Lines since it opened in 1991. The airline wanted to extend its naming rights until it finished bankruptcy proceedings in one or two years, Miller said. But Delta never specified a contract length or payment amount, he said.
"Maybe" two other companies were serious bidders, Miller added.