WASHINGTON — EnergySolutions would limit international low-level radioactive waste to 5 percent of its storage facility in Tooele County, company chairman R. Steve Creamer told a U.S. House panel Tuesday.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and other opponents of the company's plan to bring Italian waste to the United States see a threat to the country's storage capacity for its own low-level waste. But Creamer tried to calm those fears by committing to a limit on the amount of foreign waste the company would take.

Creamer poured a salt packet into a tall glass vase half full of pink sand to illustrate the effect taking the Italian waste would have on the Clive site's capacity.

"We wouldn't go over 5 percent at Clive," Creamer said. "That would be the very upper limit. Realistically I don't think we would ever reach that."

Creamer said the Clive facility could still take waste for 30 years — which some members saw as far into the future — while Matheson and others argued that is sooner than later.

EnergySolutions has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to accept about 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste produced in Italy for processing in Tennessee. The remaining 1,600 tons of waste after processing would come to the company's Utah site. EnergySolutions already disposes of about 90 percent of the low-level radioactive waste produced in this country.

A public comment period closes June 10 on whether the NRC should grant the license.

The Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management has already rejected the idea, but EnergySolutions is looking for the U.S. District Court in Utah to decide whether it has the authority to do this.

Creamer emphasized at the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee hearing Tuesday that the company is not suing for damages but just asking the court to declare what the law says.

"We believe the compact does not have authority over Clive," Creamer said. "It is not a compact facility. This has nothing to do with money, nothing to do with hostilities. It is just us asking a question."

But the fact the question even has to be asked bothers Matheson and other lawmakers, who said there is a lot of finger pointing going on but an unclear regulatory process to oversee disposal of international waste.

"We have, in my opinion, a regulatory mess," Matheson said.

The hearing focused on a bill Matheson, along with Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., introduced in March to prohibit the country from taking any foreign nuclear waste.

Matheson acknowledges that the country has received this type of waste from overseas in the past but nothing on the scale that EnergySolutions wants. He said the country needs to look at its own waste disposal needs, especially if new nuclear powers plants might be built, before taking on more waste from foreign countries.

"The problem we face now was not anticipated in the 1980s," Matheson said, when federal nuclear waste policy was initially created.

"There needs to be a national law to keep nuclear waste from taking up space in finite capacity," Gordon said. "I don't see why we would want to give up five 5 percent."

Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher, D-Va., reminded the committee that Matheson's bill applies to the entire's country nuclear waste policy, not just this specific license in Utah.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said the bill could stop the "nuclear renaissance" the country needs by stopping disposal capabilities.

He said the bill is more of a "NIMBY", or not in my backyard, argument.

"We cannot compete on a global scale if we shutdown our domestic facilities," said Upton, who has two nuclear plants in his district.

But Gordon added that he is not against nuclear energy or EnergySolutions and the bill does nothing to limit nuclear power. Matheson and Gordon pointed out that their bill is not trying to shut down anything but just keep foreign waste from entering the country.

After the hearing, Matheson said it was clear the 30-year capacity estimate does not take new nuclear power plants into account or any new cleanup efforts that could also bring low-level waste to Clive, so it could be used up sooner.

"We have increasing demand for low-level radioactive waste storage and shrinking space," Matheson said. "No one is clearly in charge of whether or not we should be taking foreign radioactive waste. I see no good reason, as public policy, to allow other countries to unload their waste on the U.S. and Utah."

E-mail: [email protected]