Washington » One hurdle down, opponents of Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions' plan to bring foreign radioactive waste to Utah are now bracing for a tough fight in the Senate over a proposed ban on the stuff.
The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed legislation Wednesday that would bar low-level radioactive waste from being brought from foreign countriesinto the United States for disposal. The measure is aimed squarely at EnergySolutions' efforts to bring 20,000 tons of Italian waste to Tennessee for processing, then ship some 1,600 tons of radioactive leftovers to the company's Tooele County site for burial.
Bill supporters cheered Wednesday's 309-112 vote. But they know they face a bigger challenge in the Senate, where companion legislation hasn't moved nor attracted a single co-sponsor since it was introduced 11 months ago.
"We are not surprised by today's vote," EnergySolutions President Val Christensen said in a statement. "We are disappointed that the House of Representatives voted to place American jobs at risk."
Rep. Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat who cosponsored the House bill, says he will be lobbying the other side of the Capitol.
"I think the focus has been here and now it's going to be there [in the Senate]," Matheson said. "I think this creates a real jolt of momentum."
But Matheson said the bill's chances of seeing Senate action anytime soon are uncertain. That chamber is embroiled in an intense debate over health care reform that President Barack Obama has identified as his top domestic priority and the battle could spill over into next year.
Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, says the Senate was likely just waiting for the House to give its nod before moving on its waste importation bill. Pierce and others now want Utah Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, both Repubicans, to lend their support to the measure.
Neither Utahn is a cosponsor of the bill. And Bennett, up for reelection in 2010, already has accepted about $50,000 in campaign donations from EnergySolutions.
"Now is the time we need to turn up the pressure on Hatch and Bennett and get them on board on this," Pierce says.
Two of Utah's House members, Matheson and Republican Jason Chaffetz, are cosponsors of the bill andvoted for the measure Wednesday. GOP Rep. Rob Bishop, a former EnergySolutions lobbyist who represents the district that contains the EnergySolutions' disposal site in Tooele County, was absent. Bishop was on a trip to Williamsburg, Va., with a group of high school students.
Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida argued against the bill during a brief House debate Wednesday. He called it an "anti-jobs, anti-trade" bill that would undermine economic recovery.
"In effect, this bill is going to hurt businesses in their area of trying to create jobs and promote economic growth," Stearns said.
Matheson disputed that premise, noting that it would actually preserve disposal space for domestic businesses.
"I don't know of any other country that takes imported waste," Matheson said. "For trade to exist, you have goods and services going in both directions. Not just in one. I don't understand how this in any way can be described as a restraint of trade."
Chaffetz urged his fellow House members to back the bill if they were pro-nuclear energy because it would ensure the United States would have space for its own waste.
"Expansion of our nuclear capacity will be nearly impossible if we allow our storage facilities to become saturated with foreign nuclear waste," Chaffetz said.
Stearns also sparred with the legislation's chief sponsor, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., over whether there was enough space left at EnergySolutions' Clive facility.
"As Shakespeare said, 'To err is human,' and in this case, the gentleman from Tennessee has erred," Stearns said, adding that the company says it has plenty of space to take foreign waste for decades.
"Shakespeare also says, don't rope-a-dope me," Gordon shot back, contending there is a finite capacity in the company's Utah site, the only licensed disposal facility for 37 states. "It's a very serious problem if you are a lab, a hospital, if you are a utility and you have no place to take your low-level radioactive waste."
EnergySolutions is seeking a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to bring the Italian waste to the United States, though the agency has punted the decision until a lawsuit filed by the company is decided.
The state and the Northwest Compact, a congressionally sanctioned panel that controls waste disposal in its region, opposed the effort but lost in the U.S. District Court for Utah. An appeal is scheduled for argument Jan. 14 in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.