U.S. Critics Hope to Halt Nuclear-Waste Imports

Utah firm wants Italian isotopes

3 min read

An American company's application to import 18 150 metric tons of low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) from Italy into the United States has set off a firestorm of controversy. In just four months, the proposal has elicited over 2000 comments on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Web site, a federal lawsuit, and a bill in the U.S. Congress that would ban the importation of all ”foreign-generated” low-level nuclear waste. Because the case touches on issues related to the Bush administration's plans for international radioactive materials trade, the outcome of this relatively small case could set a precedent with far-reaching consequences.

Last September, EnergySolutions, a nuclear waste treatment and disposal company based in Salt Lake City, filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to import the low-level radioactive waste. LLRW is a definition by exclusion: it is anything that is not spent fuel and may include tools, radioactive lumber, steel, clothing, and concrete. Angered by the plan, Representative Bart Gordon (D.�Tenn.), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, introduced a bill in March that would ban the Italian waste and any other foreign-generated LLRW. ”No other country in the world is accepting nuclear waste from other countries,” Gordon says. ”The United States is putting itself in a position to become the world's nuclear dumping ground.”

Most nuclear countries keep their LLRW on-site at reactors or, like Finland, in underground storage. In the United States, LLRW goes to three regional dumps. Gordon worries that a precedent for accepting foreign-generated nuclear waste could compromise U.S. storage capacity.

EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker disagrees. The company's 2.6-square-kilometer waste disposal facility at Clive, Utah, he says, ”has enough capacity to dispose of [the LLRW from] all 104 [commercial] U.S. nuclear reactors and still have over 50 million cubic feet [about 1.4 million cubic meters] of capacity to spare.” Walker adds that because the EnergySolutions facility is a private nuclear waste disposal site, the company's plans would not affect federally mandated LLRW sites.

But analysts question some of the fundamental points of EnergySolution's application. And Utah residents have reason not to trust the company, says Vanessa Pierce, executive director of HEAL, a Utah nonprofit opposed to the company's plan. In 2006, the company was known as Envirocare. The name change resulted from the company's acquisition of two other firms and a desire by the new CEO to distance EnergySolutions from an extortion and bribery scandal associated with the previous owner, which involved more than US $600 000 in real estate, Swiss bank account transfers, and gold coins. ”Gold coins!” Pierce exclaims. ”It's like a bad movie.” Despite the name change, much of the original leadership remains intact.

”We are not excited about being home to the world's largest for-profit nuclear waste dump,” Pierce adds.

The waste has to go somewhere, counters Walker. ”We are taking only the lowest level of radioactive waste,” he says. U.S. regulations separate LLRW into subclasses--named A, B, and C--based on the level of radioactivity. Class A is the lowest, in some cases no more radioactive than a smoke detector. High-level waste will go to France or the UK, he says. ”Only Class A waste will be shipped to the United States.”

But an analysis of the NRC documents contradicts Walker's claim, argues Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear-fusion engineer with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a think tank based in Takoma Park, Md. Makhijani examined the NRC license application, which lists the amounts and types of radioactive elements intended for the Italy shipments, including transuranics like plutonium. ”If they import all the transuranics they say they're going to, then they are importing Class C waste,” Makhijani says.

According to EnergySolutions' NRC application, the plan for the Italian waste is to first classify the waste in Italy and then ship the LLRW to the United States for processing at its Bear Creek facility, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., which is licensed to accept Class B and Class C wastes. After processing and separation, 6350 metric tons are to be recycled for use as specialty building materials and shipped to Japan. Walker says the company's waste treatment processes are capable of a 200-to-1 volume reduction. The remaining waste, about 12 000 metric tons, will then be condensed into about 1450 metric tons and sent to EnergySolutions' LLRW dump in Clive, Utah.

”You cannot take 20 000 tons of this waste, incinerate it, reduce it by volume, and end up with Class A waste,” says Makhijani. Its radioactivity would have to increase.

At press time, Representative Gordon was gathering cosponsors for the bill banning imports. ”If there is not a legislative change, it means these license applications have to be fought case by case,” says a congressional aide in Gordon's office.

But Ivan Oelrich, a nuclear physicist with the Federation of American Scientists, thinks that Gordon's bill, if passed this year, could risk being vetoed by President Bush. ”It's because of the precedent it would set to ban importing nuclear waste,” Oelrich says. The president's plan for resumption of spent fuel reprocessing and recycling in the United States requires a global transfer of plutonium and other transuranics under a program called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Any law that would isolate the United States from international nuclear waste trade would signal a lack of political support for the GNEP.

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