EnergySolutions and two partners landed a $7.1 billion federal contract this week to maintain the infamous Hanford Site's 177 storage tanks filled with 53 million gallons of residual radioactive materials and chemicals for at least the next five years, the company announced Thursday.

"It's a significant contract award," said spokesman John Ward. The partners, with EnergySolutions representing 40 percent, are collectively known as Washington River Protection Solutions. "It indicates EnergySolutions is taking its place as a major nuclear services provider."

The news comes at a time when the company is meeting with an outpouring of opposition in Utah, regionally and from Congress for its proposal to import low-level radioactive waste from old nuclear reactors in Italy. Also this past month, EnergySolutions has been talking to officials in the UK about the possibilities of someday exporting radioactive waste from Great Britain for storage at the company's disposal site in Clive, Utah.

The new contract with the Department of Energy was the result of out-pacing incumbent CH2M Hill and others who responded to a request for proposals. The contract, with the possibility of a five-year extension, is supposed to take effect in July. EnergySolutions, along with Washington's URS Corporation and the French company Areva, will take full control of maintaining the tanks by October, Ward said.

The roughly 586-square mile Hanford Site, part of the Manhattan Project, is along the Columbia River in Washington and was at its height of plutonium production in the U.S in the 1960s and 1970s. It's now considered one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the country. The tanks to be maintained by EnergySolutions and its partners are huge, aging underground structures spread out among 18 "farms."

Ward said the goal over the next 20-30 years is to remove the materials from the tanks and use an on-site facility, yet to be built, to treat the toxic waste. In the meantime, EnergySolutions and its group will keep an eye on the tanks, watching for and working to prevent leaks.

"This is one of the DOE's highest priorities — to get this thing cleaned up," Ward said. So far there are no plans to transport any waste from the site to Utah. He added that the group's ability to land an award of this size also indicates EnergySolutions and its partners can operate safely.

Its current proposal to import up to 1,600 pounds of Italian radioactive waste to Utah is pending in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which recently learned the plan received a unanimous thumbs down from the eight-state Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management.

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