" Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
-- Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus
When Lazarus wrote "wretched refuse" in her ode to immigration that graces the Statue of Liberty, she didn't have radioactive waste in mind. We can all agree that radioactive waste is not a desirable import. Well, maybe not all of us.
It is wretched refuse indeed that EnergySolutions hopes to bring to our shores, radioactive waste that would remain dangerous for a century after burial in the company's low-level radioactive waste disposal facility at Clive in Tooele County. The company is seeking a license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to import 20,000 tons of contaminated materials from Italy's nuclear power industry. About 1,600 tons of leftovers would land in Utah after processing at the firm's recycling facility in Tennessee.
While there is no guarantee that a license will be issued --- it's opposed by the state of Utah, the regional radioactive waste management compact, environmental groups and thousands of citizens -- EnergySolutions has successfully imported smaller shipments in the past.
Enough is enough. Congress, by approving the Radioactive Import Deterrence Act of 2009, can, and should, stop this folly once and for all. The legislation, co-sponsored by Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, would rightly prohibit radioactive waste imports. It would send a message to other nations, and EnergySolutions, that the United States won't be the world's dumping ground.
Principle aside, there's also the issue of capacity. EnergySolutions' dump in Utah's west desert is the only repository available for low-level radioactive waste from 36 states. And, while EnergySolutions officials have promised that imported waste will take up no more than 5 percent of capacity at Clive, the key word is "promise."
It took only 20 minutes of debate this week for a House subcommittee to send the RID Act to the full Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration. But at least one of the 80 co-sponsors, Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., has had a change of heart and will offer an amendment to simply give the NRC more authority to regulate imports. That would be unwise; an affront to common sense.
If a nation has the capacity to create this kind of waste, it certainly has the ability, as well as the responsibility, to build a depository where it can be safely stored.