NRC: Up to Congress to stop nuke waste imports

NRC: Up to Congress to stop nuke waste imports

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal regulators told Congress on Friday that they have no power to stop Italy or any other country from dumping tons of radioactive waste in the United States.

It's up to Congress to stop other countries from shipping their radioactive waste to the United States, government officials who oversee the nuclear power industry told the House Energy and Commerce Committee's energy subcommittee. Moreover, a federal judge has ruled that multistate compacts overseeing waste disposal in their region don't have the authority either to bar foreign waste destined for private sites, witnesses said at a hearing.

The committee is considering a bill by Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Lee Terry, R-Neb., to prohibit importation of all low-level radioactive waste. A companion version of the bill has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

At issue is 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste from Italy that a U.S. company wants to process in Tennessee and then store the remaining 1,600 tons at private site about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah. It's the largest amount of low-level radioactive waste the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ever been asked to allow into the country.

Margaret Doane, the NRC's director of international programs, said there also are pending applications to import waste from Brazil and Mexico for disposal in Utah. Presently, the agency has no choice but to permit private companies to import waste, so long as they meet safety and security standards and there's an appropriate place to put it, she said.

Leonard Slosky, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Low-Level Radioactive Waste Board, which regulates waste disposal in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, said the issue of foreign radioactive waste is a national policy issue that needs to be confronted.

"The U.S. has the technology and the capacity to manage the waste, but the policy issue is whether we should bring in the waste of other nations," Slosky said.

He said that if EnergySolutions, a company based in Salt Lake City, is allowed to import the Italian waste and bury it at its Utah disposal site it will effectively destroy the regional system Congress created in the 1980s for the disposal of low-level waste.

At that time, Congress authorized regional compacts made up of groups of states to regulate the disposal of low-level waste generated by nuclear power plants in those states. The idea was that each group of states would develop a disposal site for waste generated from plants in those states, or work out agreements with other regions to accept their waste. The compacts have the power to reject waste for disposal in their region that is generated in a different region.

The Northwest regional compact, which includes Utah, voted to bar the Italian waste from disposal in Utah. But in May, a federal judge ruled the compact has no authority to bar waste from being stored at a private facility. The state of Utah has filed notice saying it will appeal the case to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

EnergySolutions operates the country's largest and only privately owned low-level radioactive waste disposal site.

Val Christensen, the company's president, said the court decision affects only EnergySolutions because its facility is unique.

"We have a legitimate business that is lawful, it's highly regulated, and we deal with these materials safely," Christensen said. Disposal of the Italian waste would give the company a leg up against international competitors as it seeks to become a player in the global nuclear waste disposal industry, he said.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the energy and commerce committee's energy subcommittee chairman, said no other country accepts foreign radioactive waste for disposal.

"If the U.S. remains the one country that allows for the disposal of foreign waste, then nothing stops these other countries from using us as their nuclear dumping ground," Markey said.

The bill's sponsors said the measure will benefit the domestic nuclear power industry by preserving disposal capacity for U.S.-generated waste. But Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., described the measure as a veiled attack on nuclear power.

"This is the camel's nose under the tent, and that is shutting down all of our domestic processing and disposal capabilities and eventually mothballing all of our ... nuclear power plants," Upton said.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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