WASHINGTON — If the Utah company EnergySolutions is allowed to import large amounts of low-level radioactive waste from Italy, the United States could become a nuclear garbage dump for the world, say critics, including U.S. Reps. Jim Matheson and Bart Gordon.

"I recognize that small amounts of waste have been permitted entry into the U.S. in the past; however, encouraging other nations to actively pursue disposal options in the U.S. seems shortsighted at best," Matheson, D-Utah, wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Dale Klein, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Opposition in Utah has been fierce at the grass-roots level, and the state's Radiation Control Board is also drafting a letter to Congress and the NRC.

Federal agencies, too, have pointed out concerns that the world in general is unprepared to deal with accumulating nuclear waste at all levels.

• Only 10 of 18 nations surveyed last year have disposal options for low-level nuclear waste, and none has options for all classes of such waste, according to the Government Accountability Office.

• According to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission analysis, the EnergySolutions plan is 25 times bigger than the largest previous import from outside North America.

"If this massive quantity from Italy is accepted, it just blows the doors wide open for nuclear waste to come in from all over the world," says Tom Clements, Southeast nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, an environmental group in Washington.

If approved, the company would ship up to 20,000 tons of metal piping, sludge, wood, contaminated clothing and other mildly radioactive material from Italian nuclear-power plants to Tennessee, process most of it, then dispose of the remainder in Utah. It would be by far America's largest import of nuclear waste.

The proposal, which entered a 30-day public-comment period on Feb. 11, is gathering opposition from environmentalists, regulators and members of Congress. It would not only pave the way for more such imports, critics say, but also give nations less incentive to take care of their own nuclear waste.

"The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has an obligation to deal with the waste generated in this country first and not accept foreign waste that fills up existing sites," Clements said.

Company's response

For its part, EnergySolutions says critics misrepresent how much material would be ultimately disposed of in Utah. Most material would be recycled or incinerated at its plant in Tennessee. Just 8 percent — about 1,600 tons — of the original volume would travel to Utah, the company wrote in a letter to the NRC.

"EnergySolutions does not believe the United States should be responsible for the world's nuclear waste," company spokesman Mark Walker writes in response to e-mailed questions from a reporter. But as reliance on nuclear power grows worldwide, "the U.S. is in a leadership role to provide technical solutions."

The company "has no plans" to open its Utah disposal site "to wholesale disposal for the world's nuclear waste," Walker writes. But in a recent prospectus, the company envisions "specialized decommissioning and disposal services" for Europe and the United Kingdom.

Critics say import regulations are weak because Congress never foresaw that the United States would import large volumes of radioactive waste.

"There is no indication in (legislative action or NRC regulatory action) that there was any intention that the United States would ever become a welcome repository of foreign-generated radioactive waste," Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, wrote to Klein, the NRC chairman.

While the United States has long permitted low-level radioactive waste imports, most have been small compared with the EnergySolutions request. Of 24 such waste-import license applications over the years, NRC records show 13 granted, according to an analysis by the House committee.

EnergySolutions says its plan is not out of line with past licenses. The company cites a 2006 license to import 6,000 tons of waste from Canada — about one-third the size of its Italy request. The Tennessee facility also has a history of processing materials from Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom, and accepting waste from Italy would be business as usual, the company says.

New dynamic

"All waste streams raise concerns about risks suffered by local communities," Matheson said in his letter to Klein. "Adding additional streams of waste from international sites would serve only to compound the risks."

Matheson also told the Deseret Morning News Thursday that while he opposes the waste coming to Utah, the issue goes beyond just this license application.

"Are we going to be accepting nuclear waste from the rest of the world?" said Matheson, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which would be a starting point for legislation regarding nuclear waste. "The whole congressional discussion never included foreign waste. This is a whole new dynamic."

In his letter to the NRC, Gordon wrote that the Italy proposal would be "the first attempt by a U.S. waste processing company to import large amounts of (low-level radioactive waste) as part of an agreement to decommission foreign nuclear reactors." If granted, "many other such license applications will follow."

That is a point reiterated by Matheson, who is concerned that the proposal could result in yet more waste from other countries coming to the United States.

That could be a problem, since the space available in U.S. low-level waste sites would fill up in the long run if the U.S. nuclear industry expands, as many expect.

"The uncertainties surrounding disposal costs and availability and other limitations in (low-level radioactive waste) management are taking on even greater significance as the United States embarks on developing new nuclear power plants, which would eventually create even more" low-level waste, the GAO reported last year.

At present, the United States has 104 commercial nuclear power plants, each generating on average about 12,000 cubic feet of low-level nuclear waste — about 15 million cubic feet annually, the GAO says. The United States has three facilities that accept the least-toxic "Class A" radioactive waste.

But the site in Barnwell, S.C., is nearly full and in June will be closed to waste from all but three states. The site in Richland, Wash., is accepting only limited amounts.

That leaves EnergySolutions' site at Clive, in Utah's Tooele County, which took more than 99 percent of the nation's low-level waste in 2006. There appears to be "sufficient disposal capacity" for "Class A" waste, but "uncertain future access" for other categories, the GAO says.

Walker says the EnergySolutions facility has "at least 20 years of capacity" and that the Italian material represents less than 1 percent of the annual average amount disposed at the site.

EnergySolutions, in a December letter, revealed to NRC that three of the eight Italy sites from which it expects to get material "may be comparable" to U.S. Superfund sites, akin to sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as among America's most toxic waste sites.

So far, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has not put a halt to the EnergySolutions plan. Yet concern seems to be growing in Utah, including the state's 13-member Radiation Control Board. At its December meeting, two members expressed unhappiness with the Italian waste import plan. A statement by the board reflecting opposition to it is expected, some observers say, although it is unclear what effect that might have.

Activists are also ramping up calls for public opposition.

"We see this as the camel's nose under the tent," says Vanessa Pierce, executive director of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, a coalition of environmental groups. "If we establish a precedent for importing very large quantities of foreign nuclear waste, we're going to make the U.S. and Utah the dumping ground for the rest of the world."

E-MAIL: sspeckman@desnews.com; suzanne@desnews.com