When EnergySolutions CEO Steve Creamer was growing up in the small southern Utah town of Monroe, he and his family would watch the smoke from mushroom clouds rise into the sky as the federal government conducted nuclear testing in the Nevada desert.
The whole western sky would have a green glow for several weeks after the tests, Creamer recalls. In the summer when his family would drive along the highway to Zion National Park, state troopers would warn drivers to roll up their windows to avoid inhaling the fumes from the green smoke that was blowing over the area.
At the time, they had little understanding of how profoundly their lives would be affected by those plumes of toxic smoke. Years later, Creamer's father died of lymphoma that his son believes may have been a result of those days downwind of the atomic testing range.
Steve Creamer says his work at EnergySolutions, a nuclear-waste disposal and management company, was motivated by his family's experience as downwinders.
"My dad died at the same age I am right now: 56," he says. "My mother and my family will always believe that we were affected by 'the downwinder's,' and what we're trying to do is keep that from happening again. What we do is clean up things like that, we handle them safely, we transport them safely."
Creamer became EnergySolutions' chairman and chief executive officer in 2004, when he struck the deal to buy Envirocare, a company that ran a nuclear-waste facility in Tooele County. Envirocare, and now EnergySolutions, have drawn criticism from many Utah residents and environmentalists who oppose bringing nuclear waste into the state and who worry the company will make the state a nuclear dumping ground.
The EnergySolutions facility in Clive, 70 miles west of Salt Lake City, handles more than 95 percent of all commercial low-level radioactive waste in the United States, according to the Government Accountability Office. The company also now has processing sites in Utah, Tennessee, South Carolina and the United Kingdom.
Expanding a company
This past November, Creamer took the company public, offering 11.85 million shares at $19 to $21 per share. The company's controlling stockholder, ENV Holdings LLC, offered 18.15 million shares. Since then, the company's shares have traded in the range of $22.75 to $28.45 per share.
Creamer has also been working to expand the company's holdings and contracts. In December, EnergySolutions won a $900 million deal with Exelon Corp. to dismantle the Zion Nuclear Power Station in Illinois. EnergySolutions will decommission two reactors and all other structures on the 257-acre site with completion projected for 2018, and then return the land to Exelon.
EnergySolutions drew controversy this past fall when the company mentioned plans to import up to 20,000 tons of low-level nuclear waste from Italy to the United States by ship. About 1,600 tons of that waste would end up at the disposal landfill in Tooele County.
Creamer in recent years has wanted to expand the Clive facility, but has run into some resistance from the state. Last March, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he and EnergySolutions struck a deal that maintains the volume of low-level waste the company brings to Utah at current levels, something the governor had sought since the Legislature in its last session passed a controversial waste bill. The measure, SB155, took the Legislature and the governor out of the approval process for requests to expand EnergySolutions' Tooele County landfill. Now only state regulators consider such requests.
In exchange for the volume limit in the deal with Huntsman, EnergySolutions will be able to take 96.2 million cubic feet of capacity for uranium mining by-product waste and use that space to store low-level nuclear waste.
Creamer and his company have spent countless hours working to change the public's perception about EnergySolutions' work, with the aim of advancing the idea that nuclear energy and uses of radioactive material can be valuable and that there are safe ways to deal with waste.
"The fact of the matter is we are better off today because of the radioactive isotopes that are used in technology like x-rays and chemotherapy," he says.
Roads and waste
Creamer developed his confidence and business savvy over years of mostly success and, by his own admission, some failure.
He grew up wanting to become a project engineer and build highways for the state of Utah in and around Sevier County. After graduating from South Sevier High School, he enrolled at Southern Utah University before transferring to Utah State University, where he graduated in 1973 with a degree in engineering.
He then went to work for what he called the state Highway Department briefly before moving on to the state Bureau of Environmental Health, now known as the Department of Environmental Quality.
He later worked for an engineering consulting firm and eventually started his first entrepreneurial venture, Creamer & Noble engineering consulting firm.
"At the ripe old age of 25 and with a net worth of $2,000, and a 1964 Chevy pickup, I went into business," he says with a wry smile.
His company, which grew to 100 employees, was instrumental in improving the sewer and water systems in southern Utah in addition to various road and airport runway projects, he says. "I used to say if you drink water or drive on a road south of Provo, or if you land at an airport anywhere in Utah, we probably worked on it."
Those years helped him develop numerous business relationships and helped him hone his people and deal-making skills. Those skills have helped him in negotiations with everyone from politicians, to corporate executives, to people on the street who inquire about his company, he says.
In 1991, he started the East Carbon Development Corp., which he says owned the largest landfill in America.
The company became the landfill of the Fortune 100, taking in waste from Ford, General Motors and other large corporations, he says. He sold his interest in that venture in 1997 to a subsidiary of Union Pacific Railroad called USPC Inc.
The opportunity to purchase Envirocare came up rather unexpectedly, according to Creamer. He was approached by then-owner Khrosrow Semnani while on an airline flight, and he began discussing a possible deal for the waste disposal firm. Creamer says he found the proposal interesting and began investigating the company. In December 2004, he bought the company for an undisclosed sum.
"We bought Envirocare to clean up a legacy," Creamer says. He said he also wanted to change the way people perceived the company and make it more transparent, so that its work wasn't so scary.
The company has gone so far as to set up daily tours of the Grantsville facility for visitors so they can see for themselves what EnergySolutions does.
The Clive facility is licensed to accept only low-level radioactive waste. The repository measures approximately one square mile and is currently at about 50 percent capacity, Creamer says.
EnergySolutions is today the largest recycler of low level radioactive waste in the world, according to Creamer. But he dismisses accusations from some Utah residents who believe the company is working to bring vast quantities of dangerous waste from all over the world.
"We will never wholesale bring foreign waste into Clive, it's just not in our plans to do that," Creamer says. "But if there are things we can do that make good, logical sense that allows the company to grow and better serve the industry around the world, then we might do that."
Utah a waste dump?
But advocacy groups such as the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah have questioned his commitment to the welfare of Utah.
"What started out as an illegally licensed nuclear-waste dump, Creamer is building into the world's largest nuclear trash company and is opening Utah's doors to the world's waste," says HEAL Utah executive director Vanessa Pierce.
When Creamer took the reins at Envirocare from Semnani, rebranding the company EnergySolutions, the public was told that the nuclear dump had turned over a new leaf, Pierce says. "But in reality, we got a different flavor of the same man."
Similar sentiments were expressed by former HEAL director Jason Groenwald, who waged a long battle against nuclear waste in Utah during his tenure at HEAL.
Groenwald says he doesn't believe the community's best interests are being considered by EnergySolutions.
"The community has overwhelmingly said, 'We don't want more of this waste coming into the state,'" Groenwald says. But EnergySolutions' "motivations are maximizing profits, which will come at the expense of Utahns and our environmental quality and risks to our health."
In response to those critics, Creamer says he appreciates what they bring to the table.
"HEAL makes us better, it makes you better when you know you've got a watchdog out there sitting on top of you," he says.
Walker, the EnergySolutions communications director, says even in the face of criticism, Creamer always seems able to keep his composure and deal with the situation professionally.
Trying to win trust
When Creamer first took the helm of EnergySolutions, the company began a marketing plan that included using himself as the spokesman.
"We wanted to put a face on the company to build a level of trust between the citizens of Utah and Envirocare at the time," Creamer says.
In 2006, EnergySolutions raised its profile dramatically when it bought the naming rights to Larry H. Miller's downtown arena.
Miller says he first became aware of EnergySolutions and Creamer through watching the first television commercials on the newly rebranded company. He says the ads intrigued him.
He didn't meet Creamer in person until after EnergySolutions had reached a preliminary agreement to purchase the naming rights of the arena.
"He was at the arena one night, and I went down and spent an hour or so with him and told him I'd like to hear more about their business, because I knew I was going to get questions," Miller says. "In that first meeting and subsequent meeting, I've been very impressed about how much he knows about his business. Right away, I liked him."
Creamer says he plans to stay with EnergySolutions "as long as I'm able to contribute." Following the success of the company's initial public offering, Creamer says EnergySolutions is poised to be a leader in the nuclear industry. He works hard to make that happen: He usually spends three to five days a week traveling, often internationally, and when he is in town, he wakes up in the wee hours and is the first person in the office.
But he does find time in his busy schedule for one of his favorite after-work diversions, a monthly dinner party where he and his wife enjoy a casual evening with several other couples playing bunco, a parlor game played in teams with three dice.
As for his legacy, he says he believes his work in providing safe ways to work with and dispose of radioactive waste is important for Utah.
Hometown: Monroe, Sevier County, Utah
Education: B.S. in engineering, Utah State University (1973)
Professional career: Utah Department of Transportation, engineer (1973-74); Bureau of Environmental Health, engineer (1974-76); Creamer & Noble Engineering Consulting, co-founder and partner (1976-91); East Carbon Development Co., president and CEO (1991-97); ISG Resources, president (1997-2004); EnergySolutions, chairman and CEO (2004-present)