A bill introduced Thursday in Congress seeks to prohibit the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from authorizing any company in the U.S. to accept foreign-generated nuclear waste.
The bill's inspiration came from the pending EnergySolutions application to accept waste from decommissioned nuclear reactors in Italy.
U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, joined fellow House Energy and Commerce Committee members Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. in sponsoring legislation that would ban importation of nuclear waste unless it was originally produced in the U.S. An exception would be U.S. military waste generated abroad.
Matheson said on the phone that it would be too speculative to guess whether the bill, which still needs to be scheduled for a committee hearing, could be passed in time to impact the EnergySolutions proposal. He called it a "simple" bill that Congress may be able to act on quickly.
"I don't think Utah should be a dumping ground for the world's waste," Matheson said.
He said licenses have been granted to accept waste from other countries, but it was on a much smaller scale than the current EnergySolutions application.
When national policy was set on storing low-level radioactive waste from overseas, Matheson said no one considered that larger volumes and an increasing amount of requests would be coming from other countries. Mainly, the requests are coming from countries where nuclear reactors that will soon be decommissioned and in need of a place to store the resulting waste.
"The notion of waste coming from around the world just wasn't on the table," he said. "This is really about the broader policy issue."
A press release from Gordon's office said President Bush could allow an exemption from the ban "if an application showed importation would serve a national or international policy goal, such as a research purpose." Any license to accept foreign-produced nuclear waste that was approved before passage of the bill would be grandfathered in and allowed.
EnergySolutions' wants to import about 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste produced in Italy for processing in Tennessee. Less than 1,600 tons of waste left over after processing would be shipped for storage at the EnergySolutions site in Clive, located in Tooele County. The company already disposes of about 90 percent of the low-level radioactive waste produced in this country.
In a statement released Thursday, EnergySolutions noted their track record for safety and said the bill was dealing with an issue that should be left with the NRC.
"We believe that Congressman Gordon's legislation stripping the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its jurisdiction over an issue within its purview is unwise, unwarranted and unnecessary," the statement read. "The NRC has the scientific and technical expertise to make thoughtful decisions based on facts."
The Utah group Healthy Environment Alliance (HEAL) praised the new bill.
"Not only does this bill address the immediate need to block EnergySolutions' request to dump Italian waste in Utah, but if passed, it would prevent the U.S. from becoming the world's nuclear garbage dump," HEAL director Vanessa Pierce said in an email Thursday. "We expect Governor Huntsman as well as the rest of Utah's Congressional delegation to join this national bi-partisan effort to prevent Utah and the U.S. from becoming the world's nuclear garbage dump."
Gordon said EnergySolutions' current proposal before the NRC to process and store waste from decommissioned nuclear reactors in Italy only serves interests of the company and not the country. The NRC is accepting public comments on EnergySolutions' application until June 10.
Critics of the proposal have been many, including the Utah Radiation Control Board, which last week approved a letter to the NRC requesting that EnergySolutions' application be denied. Concerns have been over the precedent that some feel would be set by possibly becoming the world's dumping ground for nuclear waste.
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is likely to draft a cover letter to accompany the state's Radiation Control Board's document, spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said last week.
EnergySolutions spokesman Tye Rogers told the state board last week that his employer has "no plans to open the gates of Clive for wholesale disposal of the world's nuclear waste." There is also the worry that the Clive facility would lose valuable space to store this country's own low-level radioactive waste if it accepted foreign waste.Previously Gordon has lobbied the Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management and its eight member states, including Utah, to weigh in on the issue. The governor of member-state Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal, suggested that Italy find its own solution to its waste problem.