The NRC also received more than 2,500 responses by Tuesday's final day of a public comment period to weigh in on a proposal by EnergySolutions to process Italian radioactive materials at a site in Tennessee and then store up to 1,600 tons of leftover waste at the company's dump in Tooele County, about 70 miles west of Salt Lake City.
Tuesday marked the last day for Utah to file its petition, which questions the risk to public health and safety and raises the issue of EnergySolutions' apparent appetite for possibly more proposals to import foreign waste in the future. The petition also asks for the NRC to deny the company's license application to import the Italian waste.
"The high public interest in this issue is one reason the Commission should allow the state of Utah to intervene," the petition reads. The document filed with the NRC Tuesday further states that Utah already "struggles" with the perception that it's a dumping ground of radioactive waste and that importing more materials from Italy or other global sources would result in "economic harm" for Utah.
"We want to be a player in the NRC licensing process," Bill Sinclair said about the petition. He is the deputy director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s appointed representative on the eight-state Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management.
The compact last May told the NRC it won't allow EnergySolutions to store up to 1,600 tons of radioactive waste from Italy at the company's Clive facility in Tooele County. EnergySolutions recently filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the compact's authority.
Sinclair said the approach of the compact in the future might be to ask, "Why bother?" if a federal judge ends up in effect telling the NRC that the compact has no authority in regulating EnergySolutions' operations at its Clive site.
"That way any waste from anywhere could go to any facility," Sinclair said.
The next step in the proposal process will be for the NRC to evaluate responses it has received.
"They have been overwhelmingly negative," the NRC's David McIntyre said about the public comments his office received. Some of the responses have been in support of the proposal. "We will review the comments, looking for any technical or legal objections to the proposed license." McIntyre said the earliest the NRC will decide on the proposal is September.
The Utah group Healthy Environment Alliance held a press conference Tuesday at the Utah State Capitol to announce it has 1,300 more comments it is forwarding to the NRC. HEAL's John Urgo isn't swayed — and neither is Sinclair — by EnergySolutions' self-imposed limit on the amount of foreign waste it will accept at its Clive site. Urgo also called for more congressional support to silence the proposal in front of the NRC.
"Utah should not have to take the nuclear garbage Italy does not want," Urgo said. "Utah has been burdened enough."
HEAL has asked the NRC for a hearing, separate from the state's petition, to further discuss the proposal.
The NRC responded June 6 to a letter from Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who expressed concern that the potentially volatile waste would be coming through the Port of New Orleans, then traveling hundreds of miles via inland waterways "before its compliance with our regulations can be confirmed," Vitter wrote. "That seems to me to be a huge risk."
NRC chairman Dale Klein wrote back assuring Vitter that the NRC will not approve the import of up to 20,000 tons of radioactive waste from Italy until the import satisfies all NRC licensing criteria.
"The NRC allows imports of radioactive waste into the country only after it has a clear understanding of the type and composition of the material," Klein told Vitter. The chairman added that anyone transporting radioactive materials must meet all NRC and U.S. Department of Transportation safety requirements.
Klein also noted in his response to Vitter that the NRC is carefully monitoring developments with the federal lawsuit EnergySolutions has filed, asking for a declaratory judgment on whether the compact has the authority to block the company's plan to store up to 1,600 tons of Italian waste in Tooele County.
McIntyre said EnergySolutions will now be given a chance to respond to the comments and as of Monday there was no talk by the NRC to extend the comment period. When the NRC makes its final decision on the proposal depends on whether the NRC actually grants any hearing requests or if the NRC needs more information from EnergySolutions.
Currently U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is trying to move a bill through Congress to keep foreign-generated nuclear waste out of the country. Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend said Tuesday space in the U.S. for nuclear waste is limited and that soon EnergySolutions' Clive facility in Utah will be the only low-level radioactive waste disposal site in this country.
"It's about priorities," said Heyrend, adding that handling the materials and waste in the U.S. is not without risk.
Elected leaders in Tennessee and Gov. Huntsman have also expressed their opposition to EnergySolutions' plan. Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said the amount of public reaction indicates a need to develop a new public policy on accepting foreign nuclear waste in the U.S.
"The NRC guidelines clearly indicate that decisions on permits like these should be made based on health and safety considerations," said EnergySolutions' John Ward. "No one has identified any health and safety considerations on this project."
In response to what Ward said has been the only substantive issue raised so far, EnergySolutions has said it will limit the amount of space it uses to store foreign waste at 5 percent of its remaining capacity. Despite that promise, the Utah-based company has been up against an outpouring of opposition.
"When we talk to people and they actually take the time to understand the whole scope of the project, we don't see that same kind of opposition," Ward said. "This is fundamentally a very sound project.
"The question is, would Utahns value having a major international company headquartered in Salt Lake City," said Ward, adding that EnergySolutions brings jobs and tax revenues to Utah. "I think those are all benefits. What is the harm to Utahns by supporting an international business like this growing? We're not talking about taking anything at the Utah facility, any type of waste, that we haven't handled safely for 30 years.
"What is left to object to?" Ward asked. "'I just don't want it.' That's the only objection you're left with."