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House panel OKs bill to ban importing foreign N-waste

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 4 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

A House subcommittee endorsed Tuesday a bill to ban importing foreign, low-level radioactive waste — which would block an EnergySolutions proposal to import 20,000 tons of it from Italy, process it in Tennessee and dump it in Utah's western desert.

EnergySolutions conceded after the vote that the bill pushed by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., likely will soon pass the full House, but said the Senate may block it.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, said before his panel passed the bill on a voice vote, "We on the committee will not allow the United States to be the world's dumping ground."

Afterward, Jill Sigal, executive vice president of strategic planning for EnergySolutions, said, "No one can term 4.3 acres in Utah as a (world) dumping ground for anything."

Her company has proposed to use no more than 4.3 acres at its Clive, Tooele County, facility for disposing foreign low-level radioactive waste, such as lab coats, shoe coverings, cleaning cloths and similar materials used by workers at nuclear power plants.

She added that while she expects that the House will pass the bill, "When the bill gets over to the Senate, I think there are many senators who will take a close look at this issue and share our view."

EnergySolutions has said the importation is not dangerous and would create U.S. jobs. It added that blocking importation of waste would hurt its competitive ability to compete to create similar disposal sites abroad, and to compete for services to foreign nuclear facilities.

Matheson told the committee that the United States has limited space currently approved to dispose of its own low-level radioactive waste, and should protect it for its own use — especially as nuclear power is becoming more important amid concerns about climate change.

However, Sigal said the U.S. General Accountability Office and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission both have said that they see no capacity problem for low-level waste far into the future.

Matheson also told the committee, "This is an effort to put the United States in the same position as all the other countries in the world because no other country accepts this waste, and we should not as well."

Matheson added after the vote, "Utahns have spoken loudly and clearly in their opposition to being a dumping ground for the world's nuclear garbage. In addition, with increasing domestic demand for radioactive waste storage and finite storage capacity, I see no good reason, as public policy, that Italy, Great Britain, Brazil, Mexico and other countries shouldn't handle their own nuclear waste."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is slated to vote on the bill Thursday.

While the legislative battle proceeds, a court battle on the same issue also is pending.

EnergySolutions successfully argued in federal court that it is a private facility and not part of a national compact system set up to let regions control what nuclear-plant wastes they may import, so Utah and a Northwest compact could not stop it from importing foreign waste.

That case is now on appeal.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com

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