Will U.S. become world's nuclear-waste dump?

Critics say a plan to import up to 20,000 tons of low-level waste from
Italy, the biggest import ever, could lead to even larger flows.

By Mark Clayton | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
from the February 28, 2008 edition

Reporter Mark Clayton discusses a Utah company's plan to import nuclear
waste from other countries.

The federal government is weighing a Utah company's request to import
large amounts of low-level radioactive waste from Italy – a step critics
say could lead the United States to become a nuclear garbage dump for the

If approved, the company would ship up to 20,000 tons of metal piping,
sludge, wood, contaminated clothing, and other mildly radioactive material
from Italian nuclear-power plants to Tennessee, process most of it, then
dispose of the remainder in Utah. It would be by far America's largest
import of nuclear waste.

The proposal, which entered a 30-day public-comment period on Feb. 11, is
gathering opposition from environmentalists, regulators, and congressmen.
It would not only pave the way for more such imports, critics say, but
also give nations less incentive to take care of their own nuclear waste.

"If this massive quantity from Italy is accepted, it just blows the doors
wide open for nuclear waste to come in from all over the world," says Tom
Clements, Southeast nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth,
an environmental group in Washington. "The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory
Commission] has an obligation to deal with the waste generated in this
country first and not accept foreign waste that fills up existing sites."

Critics misrepresent how much material would be ultimately disposed of in
Utah, counter officials of EnergySolutions, the Salt Lake City company
proposing to import the Italian waste. Most material would be recycled or
incinerated in Tennessee. Just 8 percent of the original volume would
travel to Utah, the company wrote in a letter to the NRC.

"EnergySolutions does not believe the United States should be responsible
for the world's nuclear waste," company spokesman Mark Walker writes in
response to e-mailed questions from a reporter. But as reliance on nuclear
power grows worldwide, "the US is in a leadership role to provide
technical solutions."

Whether such imports will become a regular practice remains a question.
The company "has no plans" to open its Utah disposal site "to wholesale
disposal for the world's nuclear waste," Mr. Walker writes. But in a
recent prospectus, the company envisions "specialized decommissioning and
disposal services" for Europe and the United Kingdom.

Only 10 of 18 nations surveyed by the Government Accountability Office
(GAO) last year have disposal options for low-level nuclear waste and none
has options for all classes of such waste.

Critics say import regulations are weak because Congress never foresaw
that the US would import large volumes of radioactive waste. "There is no
indication in [legislative action or NRC regulatory action] that there was
any intention that the United States would ever become a welcome
repository of foreign-generated radioactive waste," Rep. Bart Gordon (D)
of Tennessee, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology
wrote earlier this month in a letter to Dale Klein, NRC chairman.

While the US has long permitted low-level radioactive waste imports, most
have been small compared with the EnergySolutions request. Of 24 such
waste-import license applications over the years, NRC records show 13
granted, according to an analysis by the House committee. The
EnergySolutions plan is 25 times bigger than the largest import from
outside North America, that analysis shows.

EnergySolutions says its plan is not out of line with past licenses. The
company cites a 2006 license to import 6,000 tons of waste from Canada –
about one-third the size of its Italy request.

Yet the Italy proposal would be "the first attempt by a US waste
processing company to import large amounts of [low-level radioactive
waste] as part of an agreement to decommission foreign nuclear reactors,"
Representative Gordon writes. If granted, "many other such license
applications will follow" rather than forcing nations to deal with their
own waste.

That could be a problem, since the space available in US low-level waste
sites would fill up in the long run if the US nuclear industry expands, as
many expect.

"The uncertainties surrounding disposal costs and availability and other
limitations in [low-level radioactive waste] management are taking on even
greater significance as the United States embarks on developing new
nuclear power plants, which would eventually create even more" low-level
waste, the GAO reported last year.

At present, the US has 104 commercial nuclear power plants each generating
on average about 12,000 cubic feet of low-level nuclear waste – about 15
million cubic feet annually, the GAO says. The US has three facilities
that accept the least-toxic "Class A" radioactive waste.

But the site in Barnwell, S.C., is nearly full and in June will be closed
to waste from all but three states. The site in Richland, Wash., is
accepting only limited amounts. That leaves EnergySolutions' site at
Clive, Utah, which took more than 99 percent of the nation's low-level
waste in 2006. There appears to be "sufficient disposal capacity" for
"Class A" waste, but "uncertain future access" for other categories, the
GAO says.

Walker says the EnergySolutions facility has "at least 20 years of
capacity" and that the Italian material represents less than 1 percent of
the annual average amount disposed at the site.

While the NRC keeps an eye on disposal site capacity, Chairman Klein in a
letter last month noted that the NRC's environmental and public-health
review of the application to import Italian waste "is limited to ensuring
that the import and transportation of the facility will not be exceeded."

Even so, the NRC has sought details about material to be imported and
assurances that it will meet US standards for low-level waste disposal.
EnergySolutions, in a December letter, revealed to NRC that three of the
eight Italy sites from which it expects to get material "may be
comparable" to US Superfund sites, akin to sites identified by the US
Environmental Protection Agency as among America's most toxic waste sites.

In the end, though, it is largely up to states to decide whether such
shipments make sense for them, the NRC spokesman says.

"Is there a place willing and able to accept the material – that's where
we consult the states in question, Tennessee and Utah," says NRC spokesman
David McIntyre. "If the states say 'no,' we wouldn't let it in."

So far, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has not put a halt to the
EnergySolutions plan. Yet concern seems to be growing in Utah, including
the state's three-man Radiation Control Board, whose members are appointed
by the governor. At its December meeting, two members expressed
unhappiness with the Italian waste import plan. A statement by the board
reflecting opposition to it is expected, some observers say, although it
is unclear what effect that might have.

Activists are also ramping up calls for public opposition.

"We see this as the camel's nose under the tent," says Vanessa Pierce,
executive director of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, a coalition of
environmental groups. "If we establish a precedent for importing very
large quantities of foreign nuclear waste, we're going to make the US and
Utah the dumping ground for the rest of the world."