The Nuclear Regulatory Commission received more than 2,500 responses by Tuesday's final day of a public comment period to weigh in on a proposal by EnergySolutions to process Italian radioactive materials at a site in Tennessee and then store up to 1,600 tons of leftover waste at a dump in Tooele County.
"They have been overwhelmingly negative," the NRC's David McIntyre said. Some of the responses have been in support of the proposal. "We will review the comments, looking for any technical or legal objections to the proposed license."
The Utah group Healthy Environment Alliance held a press conference today at the Utah State Capitol to announce it has 1,300 more comments it is forwarding to the NRC. HEAL's John Urgo isn't swayed by EnergySolutions' self-imposed limit on the amount of foreign waste it will accept at its Clive site. Urgo also called for more congressional support to silence the proposal in front of the NRC.
"Utah should not have to take the nuclear garbage Italy does not want," Urgo said. "Utah has been burdened enough."
HEAL has asked the NRC for a hearing to further discuss the proposal.
The NRC responded June 6 to a letter from Sen. David Vitter, R-LA, who expressed concern that the potentially volatile waste would be coming through the Port of New Orleans, then traveling hundreds of miles via inland waterways "before its compliance with our regulations can be confirmed," Vitter wrote. "That seems to me to be a huge risk."
NRC Chairman Dale Klein wrote back assuring Vitter that the NRC will not approve the import of up to 20,000 tons of radioactive waste from Italy until the import satisfies all NRC licensing criteria.
"The NRC allows imports of radioactive waste into the country only after it has a clear understanding of the type and composition of the material," Klein told Vitter. The chairman added that anyone transporting radioactive materials must meet all NRC and U.S. Department of Transportation safety requirements.
Klein also noted in his response to Vitter that the NRC is carefully monitoring developments with a federal lawsuit EnergySolutions has filed, asking for a declaratory judgment on whether the eight-state Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management has the authority to block the company's plan to store up to 1,600 tons of Italian waste in Tooele County. The Compact notified the NRC of its stance last May.
McIntyre said EnergySolutions will now be given a chance to respond to those comments and as of June 9 there was no talk by the NRC to extend the comment period. When the NRC makes its final decision on the proposal depends on whether the NRC grants any hearing requests, which it has from HEAL, or if the NRC needs more information from EnergySolutions. McIntyre said the earliest the NRC will decide on the proposal is September, 2008.
Currently U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is trying to move a bill through Congress to keep foreign generated nuclear waste out of the country. Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend said Tuesday space in the U.S. for nuclear waste is limited and that soon EnergySolutions' Clive facility in Utah will be the only low-level radioactive waste disposal site in this country.
"It's about priorities," said Heyrend, adding that handling the materials and waste in the U.S. is not without risk.
Elected leaders in Tennessee and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. have also expressed their opposition to EnergySolutions' plan. Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said Tuesday the amount of public reaction indicates a need to develop a new public policy on accepting foreign nuclear waste in the U.S.
"The NRC guidelines clearly indicate that decisions on permits like these should be made based on health and safety considerations," said EnergySolutions' John Ward. "No one has identified any health and safety considerations on this project."
In response to what Ward said has been the only substantive issue raised so far, EnergySolutions has said it will limit the amount of space it uses to store foreign waste at five percent of its remaining capacity. Despite that promise, the Utah-based company has been up against an outpouring of opposition.
"When we talk to people and they actually take the time to understand the whole scope of the project, we don't see that same kind of opposition," Ward said. "This is fundamentally a very sound project.
"The question is, would Utahns value having a major international company headquartered in Salt Lake City," said Ward, adding how EnergySolutions brings jobs and tax revenues to Utah. "I think those are all benefits. What is the harm to Utahns by supporting an international business like this growing? We're not talking about taking anything at the Utah facility, any type of waste, that we haven't handled safely for 30 years."What is left to object to?" Ward asked. "'I just don't want it.' That's the only objection you're left with."