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Lobbying tally climbs in nuclear waste debate

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WASHINGTON — The state of Utah paid a lobbyist $45,000 last year to help battle nuclear waste while the consortium of companies looking to bring waste to Utah has spent more than $1 million on lobbying since 1998.

The extra attention — and money — paid by both sides of the nuclear waste debate show how serious each is about its objective and how tense the legislative negotiations were at the end of last year.

"Keeping high-level nuclear waste out of Utah is a high priority for Gov. Huntsman, and we feel it is important to take any and all steps necessary to do it," said Mike Mower, spokesman for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

The state had a $45,000 contract with Dukto Worldwide lobbyist William Simmons, a former aide to former Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah. Simmons' 2005 lobbying disclosure report said he was hired to "assist/advise client on issues related to high level nuclear waste." Mower said it was awarded through a competitive bidding process.

Simmons helped coordinate efforts to push a major roadblock for Private Fuel Storage through Congress last year. Huntsman renewed it through 2006 for another $45,000, Mower said. It has not been decided if the contract will be renewed for 2007, Mower said.

Simmons said he met with staff on relevant committees and followed appropriations bills and other energy policy legislation that made its way through Congress, including the Defense Authorization bill.

Meanwhile, Private Fuel Storage has paid more than $1 million since 1998 for its own lobbyist in Washington, according to lobbying records and the Center for Public Integrity. This includes a $40,000 contract for 2005 with MGN Inc. The 2005 lobbying disclosure forms specifies that its work revolved around the Defense Authorization bill. Steve Barringer and Nils Johnson from MGN Inc. moved to another firm, Holland & Hart, in April. Neither Barringer nor Johnson could be reached for comment as to what they are working on for PFS this year, if anything.

PFS wants to store nuclear waste on the Goshute Indian Reservation in Tooele County until the government opens the planned federal storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The state strongly opposes the idea but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license earlier this year to PFS. The consortium is now looking for customers to invest in constructing the storage site and to move waste there, but has also asked the Energy Department to pay for waste storage there.

Mower said the "extra set of hands" worked with the congressional delegation to watch various pieces of legislation and represent the governor on the issue.

"It was so pressing at the time, it was an 'all hands on deck' situation," Mower said.

After the state lost its effort to block the commission from giving PFS its license, it filed a case appealing the license in federal court but legislative options also remained.

Before he left office, Hansen had initiated a bill that would create a federal Wilderness Area to protect the Utah Test and Training Range used by Hill Air Force Base but also blocked PFS from building a rail line designed to ship waste to the Goshute site.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, resurrected the idea and introduced a slightly different but similar bill.

Congress eventually approved the Defense Authorization bill with Bishop's provision, causing the delegation and the state to declare a big victory in the PFS fight.

But the victory did not come easy. As House and Senate negotiators finished up the final version of the Defense Authorization bill there was an almost hour-by-hour change as to whether it would include a Bishop provision until all those involved ultimately agreed to let it pass.

Julius Hobson, an adjunct associate professor of political management at George Washington University, said it is not unusual for a state to hire a lobbyist for some extra help on an issue and that it should be viewed no differently than a company hiring a lobbyist.

"The delegation is stretched over a number of issues," Hobson said. "They have their committee assignments and a huge number of constituents."

He said a lobbyist can concentrate on one single issue and go at it "full-force."

"It's like a rifle shot," Hobson said. "Others do it and you would be remiss if you didn't. (Hiring a lobbyist) is part of doing everything you can possibly do on an issue, a 'leaving no stone unturned.' "

Nuclear waste continues to be a hot topic this session and a compromise between similar storage provisions in the House and Senate energy and water spending bill may not be worked out until the 11th hour this year as well. The Senate bill contains $10 million to start a federal temporary storage program until Yucca opens. The Senate bill specifically disqualifies Utah from getting a federal site because Private Fuel Storage already has a license to store waste in Skull Valley. But the bill does not prohibit companies from using PFS instead of a government waste facility. The Senate has not yet taken up the bill.

The House passed its version of the energy and water spending bill, which contained $30 million for the temporary storage of nuclear waste, saying the government could consider private sites as well as federal facilities to store it.

Action on the Senate bill is not likely to take place until after the November election and lobbyists on both sides are the issues will be watching the debate closely.

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com