Bill to ban foreign nuke waste makes small advance

Associated Press and Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY – A bill designed to keep foreign countries from disposing their nuclear waste in the United States is taking a small but significant step toward getting a U.S. House committee vote for the first time.

Tomorrow, the Radioactive Import Deterrence Act will undergo a process known as markup, where members of a House subcommittee will debate and recommend changes to the bill before it advances.

The bill to ban the importation of low-level radioactive waste was drafted in response to a Utah company’s plan to import up to 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste from Italy’s shuttered nuclear power program through the ports of Charleston, S.C., or New Orleans. After processing in Tennessee, about 1,600 tons would be disposed of in EnergySolutions Inc.’s facility in the western Utah desert.

It is the largest single amount of radioactive waste that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ever been asked to allow into the country, and the NRC doesn’t have the ability to keep the waste out simply because it is foreign.

Bill supporters say the importation of U.S. disposal facilities should be preserved for domestic waste as the U.S. increasingly looks at expanding nuclear power use.

EnergySolutions’ facility is the only one currently available to 36 states, although an NRC official has testified that capacity there isn’t a short-term problem.

Company officials say they need to be able to dispose of foreign waste because it will help them develop relationships with other countries with an end goal of building disposal facilities abroad.

‘We are competing with other foreign companies to participate as a leader from America in the nuclear renaissance,’ company president Val Christensen said at a recent hearing. ‘And we have as our secret sauce, in attempting to compete with other world competitors, the ability to dispose of a small amount of their waste, and it is limited.’

Company spokeswoman Jill Sigal said 10 years is about the length of time needed to site and build a facility.

However, the publicly traded company also said in an NRC filing it would suffer substantial economic harm if it couldn’t dispose of the Italian waste, although it acknowledged last week it has no contracts with Italy yet.

To allay concerns that the U.S., and particularly Utah, would become the world’s nuclear waste dumping ground, the company volunteered last year to limit disposal of foreign waste to 5 percent of its facility’s remaining capacity. During a hearing on the bill earlier this month, the company also said it would limit the disposal of foreign waste to a 10-year period by voluntarily amending its Utah license.

But in Utah, disposing of any foreign radioactive waste is unpopular. The NRC received a record number of public comments on the company’s import license application, most in opposition.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman tried to use a regional compact in which the state is a member to keep foreign waste out, but in May a federal judge ruled the compact has no authority to bar waste from being disposed in a private facility.

The court’s ruling is the most significant event to occur since the RID Act failed to advance to markup last year.

The bill’s sponsors – Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Lee Terry, R-Neb. – believe they now have the momentum necessary to move their legislation forward.

Last week, they also got a boost from Utah’s new governor, Gary Herbert. After Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling said earlier this month that Herbert wouldn’t be taking a position on the RID Act, the Republican reversed course and said he would support it when questioned in a televised news conference.

‘For me, it’s a capacity issue. I don’t think that we want to use up our limited capacity by storing foreign waste,’ Herbert said. ‘I think the emphasis needs to be on the congressmen to get that through. I know it’s been there for over a year, and they need to do what they need to do with their colleagues to get that passed.’

A companion version of the bill has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.