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Plans to bury radioactive waste from Italy in Utah's West Desert have become a game of hot potato between federal regulators and the state government.
Both Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission deny they have the authority to stop the Italy waste.
While they point fingers at one another, saying only the other has the power to settle the issue, the plan has attracted an unprecedented interest among Americans, and even a few Europeans.
Used to less than a dozen comments on each of the waste import requests it has handled over the past decade, the NRC has been swamped with over 1,000 comments on plans by Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions to import waste from Italy and dispose a small portion of it at the company's mile-square Tooele County landfill, about 80 miles west of the Utah capital.
Reading between the lines in the online library the NRC keeps on the Italy waste license application, it is possible to watch the issue play out in the dialogue between the NRC and Utah's Republican governor.
Huntsman says it is the federal government's job to determine whether nuclear waste from Italy -- or any other foreign nation -- belongs in U.S. disposal sites.
The NRC says it is up to states to decide what waste they will and will not accept.
Huntsman added his voice recently to a growing din over the waste import proposal, a plan to take 20,000 tons of cleanup material from Italy's dismantled nuclear reactors and bury 1,600 tons of it at EnergySolutions' Utah site. It was his strongest statement since announcing last fall that he would not oppose the Italy waste outright because his hands are tied legally under an agreement he signed with the company last spring -- one that limits the volume of waste EnergySolutions can accept.
"I believe that whether to reserve [the nation's limited disposal] space for nuclear waste produced in the United States or permit importation and disposal of the nuclear waste from these facilities by other countries is a policy issue that must be addressed at a federal level by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," Huntsman wrote in a March 13 letter to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "I urge such a policy decision be made in a timely manner."
Meanwhile, the NRC has to decide what to do about EnergySolutions' application to import the waste from Italy.
In the weeks since NRC heard from Huntsman, the agency has taken the unusual step of publishing a fact sheet on the EnergySolutions request, the biggest and most controversial import application the agency has ever processed.
The fact sheet -- found at http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/energysolutions.html -- makes it clear that EnergySolutions' license request will be judged on strictly technical grounds: can the waste be imported and disposed of safely and legally?
"For imports, the review considers whether an appropriate facility has agreed to accept the waste for management or disposal," the fact sheet says. "Under the Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, the states are responsible for regulating access to low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities."
NRC Chairman Dale Klein clarified that view in a letter to Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon, explaining that policy considerations are not the NRC's job.
"The NRC's role in evaluating a low-level radioactive import application is a regulatory one, limited to ensuring that the proposed import can be accomplished safely and securely in accordance with the applicable laws, and that the material will be accepted by an authorized recipient," the April 9 letter says.
The letter goes on to say that Utah and Tennessee regulators have already said EnergySolutions meets those standards. Utah Division of Radiation Control Director Dane Finerfrock say state "rules do not prohibit the disposal of low-level radioactive waste from foreign generators" as long as the material meets radioactivity and other technical standards, including an overall cap on the amount of waste at the Tooele County site.
Huntsman's position has frustrated many opponents, who contend he alone can settle the Italian waste question.
"No matter how many boards, legislators, Congressmen, newspaper editors, or citizens from across the country decry this Italian nuclear waste, at the end of the day there is only one voice that matters," said Vanessa Pierce, director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. "Governor Jon Huntsman needs to stop hiding behind surrogates and stand up for Utahns by saying "no" to EnergySolutions' proposal.
The company has downplayed the implications of the Italy license request, saying that it has imported material from foreign nations dozens of times in the past and that its work has been done safely, meeting state and federal regulations.
"It's a rigorous process [for NRC import licenses]," said company spokesman Mark Walker. "And the NRC will make its decision based on safety and its [regulatory] code."
Of the 1,086 comments submitted to the NRC, EnergySolutions employees and supporters have submitted 94 of the 115 in support of the proposal, including former Utah congressman James Hansen and Utah Jazz President Randy Rigby, according to the NRC licensing office.
Comments both for and against have come from 40 states and two European nations -- France and Italy.
Several congressional lawmakers, including Utah Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, have introduced legislation to stop foreign waste imports. And two other important players have yet to weigh in, the U.S. State Department and the Northwest Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management, regional organization.
What the governor says: "The United States has a finite amount of space for disposal of radioactive material," Huntsman wrote in a March 13 cover letter to the NRC. "I believe that whether to reserve [the nation's limited disposal] space for nuclear waste produced in the United States or permit importation and disposal of the nuclear waste from these facilities by other countries is a policy issue that must be addressed at a federal level by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I urge such a policy decision be made in a timely manner."
His point: That federal law says nothing about landfill capacity is validated in a Dec. 13, 2007 letter the NRC chairman sent to concerned congressmen: "... as a regulator, [the NRC] does not directly consider future domestic disposal needs during the license application review process."
What federal regulators say: "For imports, the review considers whether an appropriate facility has agreed to accept the waste for management or disposal," a recent NRC fact sheet says. "Under the Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, the states are responsible for regulating access to low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities."
A May 6, 2006 regional-state agreement appears to validate that view: "While the [Northwest Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management] allows the above described wastes access to the licensed EnergySolutions facility in the Northwest Interstate Compact region....Utah retains the right to specifically approve each disposal arrangement before the waste is allowed access to the licensed EnergySolutions facility."
Make a comment
Comments are being taken through June 10. They can be sent to: Secretary, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555-000, Attn: Rulemaking and Adjudication Staff.
A new fact sheet on the import-license request is available at: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/energysolutions.html.