Scott Williams: Utah governors have a 50-year legacy of opposing radioactive waste

Spencer Cox will now be called upon to stop any import of nuclear waste from Wyoming.

(TerraPower via PacifiCorp press release) A screenshot of a projection of the Natrium reactor demonstration project that will be built in Wyoming.

Following Wyoming’s June 2 announcement of their proposal to build a nuclear power plant, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s spokesperson was quoted as saying, “this waste is not going to come to Utah, we’re really bullish on that.”

The Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah) has been working for over 20 years to keep Utah from becoming a nuclear waste dump. We congratulate the governor on his position to protect the people and environment of the state from further exposure to radioactivity.

For the past 50 years, every Utah governor has been called on to protect the state’s residents, its landscapes and its tourism industry from the health and environmental hazards of radioactive waste. During his tenure, Cox will most likely be put in this position again — holding the line on the types of radioactive waste allowed into the state.

EnergySolutions is petitioning to import up to a million tons of waste that gets more radioactive over time. Energy Fuels, near Blanding, wants to bring uranium waste in from Estonia and Japan. UAMPS’ (Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems) wants to build a nuclear plant in southern Idaho that would supply power to two dozen smaller Utah towns and generate the most toxic form of nuclear waste. Attempts are being made to resurrect the uranium mining and milling industries in southeastern Utah

In 1978, Gov. Scott Matheson asked a U.S. Senate committee to pay for the cleanup of the uranium waste left behind by the Vitro Chemical company near 3300 South and 900 West in Salt Lake City, testifying that about a half-million people lived near the 107-acre mill tailings pile that was “one of the largest microwave ovens in the West.”

Since then, each of Utah’s governors had faced one or more moments of choice between the short-term economic promises of the nuclear industry and the state’s long-term health, safety and larger economic interests. In 1989, Gov. Norm Bangerter strongly objected to the U.S. Department of Energy’s plans to ship radioactive waste through Utah without any public input.

“Nobody wants radioactive waste,” Bangerter said, “so it’s important when we have to take it, through transportation or for storage, that the people have an absolute right to know what’s going on in our state and feel comfortable that we’re taking appropriate actions to ensure that the safety of our people is not compromised.”

In 2000, Gov. Mike Leavitt set up a special state office to block nuclear waste shipments into Utah for storage on the Goshute Reservation. “I will deploy every tool I can,” Leavitt said. “We don’t produce this waste. We shouldn’t store it.”

In 2004, responding to a plan to ship uranium mill tailings from Ohio and New York to the White Mesa mill near Blanding, Gov. Olene Walker said that this “is but the beginning of the hundreds of such similar sites and I think if we don’t stand up now the game is over. You can’t take two or three and say that’s all.”

In 2007, Gov. Jon Huntsman kept EnergySolutions from expanding their operations and taking a higher level of radioactive waste. Huntsman blocked 117 million cubic feet of waste from coming to the state.

“I’ve stated consistently from the beginning of my term in office that Utah should not be a dumping ground for radioactive waste,” said the governor in a news conference. “This tower of radioactive waste is not created by Utahns and not wanted by Utahns.”

Then in 2008, Huntsman was called on again and took a strong stand against allowing EnergySolutions to import waste from Italy.

Gov. Gary Herbert eventually won that battle against Italian waste. Then, in 2009, he turned back a train in South Carolina loaded with 11,000 tons of radioactive waste bound for Utah.

“This is a monumental win for the State of Utah,” Herbert said. “At one point, we were told these trains were all but on the tracks, making their way to Utah. The Department of Energy has now agreed, after we registered our concerns, that those trains will head elsewhere.”

Cox made the right call and he is backed up by a half-century of wise decisions by previous governors. We hope he continues to realize the importance of upholding this legacy.

Scott Williams

Scott Williams, M.D., is the executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).