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 world.
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 waste to the disposal facility is conducted safely” and that other regulatory limits for 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."