Commentary: Utah should take down its ‘Waste is Welcome’ sign

EnergySolutions campaign contributions to state legislators have been a good investment. They are now effectively writing the state’s policy on nuclear waste through incremental changes in Utah law.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, sponsor of HB169 which would shift $1.7 million in fees owed by EnergySolutions to taxpayers speaks on the phone during the legislative session at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.

This session, the Utah Legislature passed three bills to make EnergySolutions “more competitive” in the nuclear waste and nuclear power plant decommissioning business. In other words, Utah just hung out a sign that says “Your Waste is Welcome Here”.

HB169 would shift $1.7 million of EnergySolutions business costs to Utah taxpayers. This is the amount of regulatory fees previously paid by EnergySolutions, a company with a half-billion dollars in annual revenues. These fees cover the cost of state permitting and inspections required at the nuclear waste dump west of the Great Salt Lake. They claim that their half-billion dollar company needs Utah taxpayers to pick-up these costs in order to become “more competitive”.

SJR11 would authorize EnergySolutions to create a new landfill where they can dump non-nuclear waste. This allows them to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for dumping nuclear power plant waste and secure the entire decommissioning contract.

HB373 would allow the non-hazardous portion of their waste facility to “self-inspect” (after only five hours of training) and to avoid a significant portion of the non-hazardous inspection fees they would have to pay under current law.

And they are currently moving a permit request through the process to import depleted uranium, a toxic byproduct of uranium enrichment that becomes increasingly more and more radioactive over time.

As The Tribune recently reported, EnergySolutions campaign contributions to state legislators have been a good investment. They are now effectively writing the state’s policy on nuclear waste through incremental changes in Utah law. These bills significantly relax their financial and regulatory responsibilities for the health and environmental burdens placed on the citizens of the state. But it isn’t too late for Utah to reclaim its control over this company and its dirty business.

Gov. Gary Herbert should veto these bills before the March 29 deadline. Then he should convene a group of experts (not lobbyists) to develop an updated policy framework for the toxic waste industry in Utah. All future bills should be reviewed to see if they comply with this comprehensive policy.

At a minimum, EnergySolutions should be banned from importing any nuclear waste that is more radioactive than Class A, from exceeding their historic volumes of low-level nuclear waste each year and from importing depleted uranium so there is a limit to the risk Utah assumes.

Three years ago, Herbert was asked about depleted uranium in his monthly televised press conference and responded that, “[EnergySolutions] may have the right to permit it. But I want that reviewed because I have a hunch that it’s hotter than Class A waste.”

The governor should follow his hunch.

For over two decades, HEAL Utah has been the state’s nuclear waste conscience and watchdog. In 2005 we successfully fought EnviroCare’s (now EnergySolutions) proposals to import Class B and C nuclear waste. In 2006 we successfully fought the storage of high-level nuclear waste on the Goshute reservation. In 2008 we fought EnergySolutions’ attempts to import foreign nuclear waste. And in 2009 we successfully turned back their initial secret attempts to import depleted uranium.

Recently, EnergySolutions had a lapse of several months in controlling radioactive dust as required. The state inspectors missed it and it took two years for the company to self-report. A dust storm during such an event could blow cancer-causing radioactive particles across Wasatch Front neighborhoods and create a new generation of downwinders.

Utahns should demand that EnergySolutions’ business goals don’t trump our health and the legacy we leave to our children.

Scott Williams

Scott Williams, is a father, grandfather, pediatrician, outdoorsman, native Utahn and the executive director at HEAL Utah.