EnergySolutions, manager of the most controversial square mile in modern Utah, has changed hands again. For $1.1 billion.
But, unlike most of the mergers and acquisitions that take place on Wall Street every day, this transaction matters a great deal to a great many people who do not own stock in, or work for, the nuclear waste disposal business.
State officials, from the governor to the Legislature to the Division of Radiation Control, must guard against any letdown of their regulatory oversight duties.
The new owner of the company, a New Jersey-based private equity firm called Energy Capital Partners, issued the typically optimistic statement Monday. The joining of EnergySolutions' business with Energy Capital Partners', well, capital, the company says, creates a "tremendous opportunity" to build the EnergySolutions brand and its capacity to not only handle nuclear waste but pursue its other line of business, decommissioning nuclear power plants.
If the new corporate structure indeed provides improved wherewithal to operate the Tooele County nuclear waste disposal site in a safe and efficient manner, meeting all state and federal standards, that could lessen any threat that facility might pose to Utah's environment. And it might relieve Utah taxpayers of the potential burden of being responsible for very long-term monitoring and upkeep of the facility.
Ownership by a firm that does not have to share so much information with the public because it does not offer stock, a firm dedicated above all to things that maximize its profits, could increase the pressure on managers to shirk on their safety procedures. And the new, deep-pocketed owners may seek ways to accept hotter classes of nuclear waste so as to boost, or even just maintain, their revenue stream.
The corporate history of EnergySolutions has not, so far, engendered a great deal of confidence. One past owner was forced out of the business for a time as the result of a scandal that involved alleged bribery of a state regulator. The company's initial public offering resulted in a lawsuit, since settled, when its share price plummeted from $21 to as low as $1.62. Even the latest announcement has stirred up a hornet's nest of lawyers, all ready to claim that the $3.75 per share price that current stockholders have been offered is far too low.
Utah must adopt a Reaganesque "trust, but verify" attitude toward EnergySolutions and its new owners. Because, if this deal goes sour, it isn't just investors, managers, employees and customers who will be harmed. It will be everyone who lives, breathes, drinks water and pays taxes in Utah.