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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Tim Bridgewater

SALT LAKE CITY — Republican U.S. Senate hopefuls Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee highlighted one of the few differences between them on Friday by staking out opposing views on whether foreign nuclear waste should be allowed into the United States.

Bridgewater said during a KCPW-FM debate that he's opposed to the importation of foreign nuclear waste, while Lee said he would only support a ban if his law firm's client were allowed to dispose of waste from Italy's shuttered nuclear power program in Utah first.

Lee is an attorney representing Utah-based EnergySolutions Inc., which wants to import up to 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste from Italy.

If approved, it would be the largest amount of nuclear waste ever brought into the country. After processing in Tennessee, about 1,600 tons would be disposed of at the company's facility in Utah's west desert.

Opponents contend the importation of foreign waste should be banned because U.S. disposal sites should be preserved for domestic waste. The EnergySolutions facility is the only one currently available to 36 states.

In an interview with The Associated Press following the debate, Lee said he doesn't want the U.S. to become the world's nuclear waste dumping ground, "but I don't see a problem in taking a small amount of it in the interim period."

"It's not going to affect their disposal capacity," he said.

No other country currently disposes of another's low-level radioactive waste. EnergySolutions has said it's necessary to dispose of the Italian waste because it wants to develop a relationship with that country and eventually build a disposal site there. Lee reiterated that point in the debate Friday.

"That just doesn't make any sense to me. If we let it in here, we're sending a message to the world that you don't have to deal with your nuclear waste problems," said Christopher Thomas, public policy director for the nuclear waste watchdog group Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.

"You don't phase in responsibility and accountability. You've got to expect it from day one. If we start taking care of Italy's nuclear waste and the nuclear waste company EnergySolutions is making money hand over fist, I don't think it will ever stop."

GOP Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has said he doesn't want any foreign waste in Utah, but Lee contends Utah has no right to keep it out just because it originated in a foreign country. Utah contends that regional waste compacts created by Congress allow states to decide which waste it accepts.

A federal judge has disagreed, saying that because EnergySolutions operates a private facility, Utah's regional compact doesn't have the authority to regulate it. Utah is appealing.

The company's import application is pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is waiting for the court case to be resolved. In response to that import application, the U.S. House has passed a bill that would ban the importation of foreign nuclear waste unless it served a strategic national purpose.

The bill has languished in the Senate, largely because Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, has said it is premature.

Bridgewater and Lee defeated Bennett at the GOP convention in May and are facing off in a June 22 primary. Whoever wins the GOP nomination will likely cruise to victory. A Democrat hasn't been elected to the U.S. Senate from Utah since 1970.

Bridgewater and Lee have only recently started regaining the spotlight following Bennett's convention defeat. Lee began airing commercials this week while he has been accused by state lawmakers of failing to register as a state lobbyist on behalf of 1-800-Contacts, one of his law firm's clients.

Lee has said he's done nothing wrong while he's stepped up his criticism of Bridgewater for once lobbying in Washington on behalf of the Thai Frozen Food Association.