As Gov. Gary Herbert weighs pleas from environmental activists to veto a bill that may help EnergySolutions store radioactive depleted uranium in Utah, he said one issue that he won’t consider is the company’s big donations to lawmakers.

“Like any entity out there, they have the ability to support their candidates of choice. So I don’t fault that,” he said at his monthly news conference on KUED. “So let’s just take that off the table.”

The company’s donations, and how much they factored into passing HB220, are controversial. It gave nearly $45,000 to 38 lawmakers last year, and all but two voted for the bill.

A year earlier, lawmakers also voted to give EnergySolutions a $1.7 million break on state fees annually. That came just after the company was the single-largest donor to legislators in 2017, giving 43 of them a combined $67,700.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Nonplussed, Herbert said, “What ought to be driving this is policy: What's the science behind it, and what are the end results going to be.”

He added that if the bill becomes law, whether the company truly can store the depleted uranium safely is “going to be determined by the [Utah] Department of Environmental Quality, which receives no donations.”

Herbert also has received no donations from the company. He adopted the policy of former Gov. Jon Huntsman in refusing to accept campaign contributions from EnergySolutions.

The bill alone would not enable EnergySolutions to store depleted uranium, but may help it. Utah now allows storage of the least hazardous Class A radioactive material, but bans more radioactive B and C classes of waste.

Depleted uranium, a byproduct of the uranium-enrichment process, falls into the Class A category initially, but becomes hotter as it decays — with peak radioactivity coming after about million or two million years.

The bill would specify that waste is classified at the time of its acceptance, meaning depleted uranium would be put into the acceptable Class A category.

While Herbert did not say for certain whether he will sign the bill, he praised portions of it — and EnergySolutions.

He said the company “has proven to be a good corporate citizen,” and has shown it can “store radioactive materials safely.”

The governor also praised a change in the bill that requires the U.S. Department of Energy to accept eternal management of the stockpile of toxic material if EnergySolutions should ever go out of business in coming millennia.

“The bill says if you are going to store uranium out there, that means the federal government has to by agreement in writing say, ‘We’re going to take on the responsibility for the long-term care and maintenance of the Clive facility now and forever,’” Herbert said.

“If they don’t do that, you cannot store it,” he added. “That actually is making it a little harder to bring in depleted uranium.”

The governor concluded, “So in many ways I think this will help us protect the public safety, and put the federal government on the hook for long-term care and maintenance. That’s a good thing for the people of Utah.”

The bill has passed both houses, and Herbert is considering whether to veto it, sign it, or allow it to become law without his signature.

At a news conference then, Jessica Reimer, a policy associate with HEAL Utah, said allowing depleted uranium would make EnergySolutions a permanent radioactive site.

“Depleted uranium does not become inert in 100 years. It does not become inert in 500 years. Depleted uranium grows in radioactivity for millennia, contaminating its storage site eternally,” she said.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, The Tribune owner and publisher.