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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The U.S. shouldn't rush to ban the importation of foreign nuclear waste because some states may eventually want to dispose of the material to create jobs even if Utah doesn't, said U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett.
Bennett, R-Utah, is holding up a bill that has already cleared the House that would keep foreign, low-level radioactive waste from reaching American soil.
"If we pass a national policy that says 'No', and in some other state they say, 'We need the jobs, we want the economic benefit of having such a facility, we're more than willing to accept it.' ... Is that really good public policy? That's one of the things I want to probe," Bennett told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Utah is home to the only low-level radioactive waste disposal facility available to 36 states, although another one is expected to open in Andrews County, Texas near the New Mexico border next year.
However, Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists LLC says it has no desire to dispose of foreign waste.
"On the bill itself, we haven't really followed it because we don't see it really impacting us," said company spokesman, Chuck McDonald.
There are no other private disposal facilities in the U.S and the trend for facilities owned by state governments has been to bar other states from using them, not make them more available.
The bill was written to block Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions Inc.'s plans to import up to 20,000 tons of waste through the ports of Charleston, S.C. or New Orleans from Italy's shuttered nuclear power program. After processing in Tennessee, about 1,600 tons would be disposed of at the company's facility in Utah's west desert.
EnergySolutions and its employees are among Bennett's largest campaign contributors and a former company vice president is serving as the chairman of Bennett's re-election campaign.
The company is one of the most influential and biggest spenders in Utah politics. U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is a former company lobbyist. One of Bennett's rivals for the GOP nomination, Mike Lee, is currently defending the company in federal court in its bid to dispose of the Italian waste in Utah, despite Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's objections to allowing it here.
EnergySolutions contends that Utah and the congressionally chartered interstate compact on low-level radioactive waste, of which Utah is a member, don't have the authority to tell the company whether it can dispose of foreign waste. A federal judge has already agreed, but Utah is appealing and oral arguments were made at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Thursday. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said it doesn't have the authority to keep foreign waste out simply because of its country of origin.
"If the court rules in the wrong way, states would have no ability to stop it," said U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, a primary House sponsor of the bill, along with Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn. "Our policy in this country today has this potentially huge gap, so the status quo to me is not acceptable."
The NRC is waiting for the court case to be settled before it decides whether to grant EnergySolutions an import license. If done, it would be the largest single amount of low-level radioactive waste ever allowed into the U.S.
The NRC drew a record number of public comments on the license application, nearly all in opposition to the plan. Many said they feared Utah would become the world's nuclear waste dump.
Bill supporters say foreign waste should be banned because the U.S. needs the space for its own waste as the country increasingly looks toward renewed development of nuclear power.
EnergySolutions contends that capacity at its Clive site isn't a problem. The company has said it would voluntarily amend its state license to dispose of foreign waste only over a 10-year period.
EnergySolutions contends it needs to dispose of foreign waste so it can drum up more business by developing relationships with foreign governments that may eventually allow them to build overseas disposal sites.
The kind of foreign waste the EnergySolutions would dispose of includes contaminated soil, wood and protective gear from the decommissioning of nuclear power plants. The Utah site is not permitted to dispose of high-level radioactive waste. The Italian waste is no different from other material it handles.
"There's no health and safety issue -- it's an appearance issue. I'm not saying it's a trivial issue, but it is an appearance issue," Bennett said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)