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EnergySolutions abandons plan to import Italian nuclear waste to Utah

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EnergySolutions uses a shredder for waste at its Tooele County site. It had sought to import up to 20,000 tons of Italian waste.

EnergySolutions uses a shredder for waste at its Tooele County site. It had sought to import up to 20,000 tons of Italian waste.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Nuclear waste from Italy — or any other foreign country — won't be coming to Utah, EnergySolutions announced Wednesday.

Instead, the company intends to profit from consulting with Italy and other nations about storing their low-level radioactive waste within their own borders.

EnergySolutions had sought to import up to 20,000 tons of low-level waste from Italy that would have been disposed of at its Tooele County facility after processing at a company operation in Tennessee.

"Controversy did not drive this decision," EnergySolutions CEO Val Christensen said at a news conference at the company's downtown Salt Lake headquarters.

He said he notified Gov. Gary Herbert of the decision, but the company did not ask for anything from the state in return for dropping its plans.

"There is no deal," Christensen said.

Herbert said in a statement that the announcement "is welcome news for all Utahns. As governor, I have opposed, and I continue to oppose, the importation of foreign nuclear waste to Utah."

Christensen said the governor understands, as a businessman himself, the decision "simply makes more sense" for the company long-term. He said it was not clear whether the decision would cost the state any jobs or revenues.

In 2009, EnergySolutions had offered the state 50 percent of the profits from accepting the foreign waste, a deal legislative leaders were told would generate $1 billion or more over 10 years.

Many Utahns opposed allowing foreign waste into the state.

Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, an environmental group that fought the company's plans, was pleased with Wednesday's announcement.

"This is definitely a surprise, and I think it's a wise move for the company to help countries dispose of the waste they create right there," said the group's executive director, Vanessa Pierce.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, the co-sponsor of a bill banning the import of foreign nuclear waste that has passed the U.S. House, said he was happy with the company's decision.

"I've said all along no other country takes another country's nuclear waste, and I don't see why we should," Matheson said. "I'd like to think there's some recognition on this issue that people in Utah think it's a bad idea."

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, had stalled the ban in the Senate, but both candidates for his seat said they would support it. Bennett, whose bid for a fourth term was defeated at the GOP state convention in May, said the Senate should wait to consider the bill until the ongoing court battle over whether Utah and a Northwest compact of states could block foreign waste is settled.

GOP Senate candidate Mike Lee, an attorney who represented EnergySolutions in the case, said he's "never wanted the state of Utah to be the world's dumping ground. I think that would be a mistake, and that was never the company's intent." Lee said, however, that the ban against foreign waste should be phased in over several years.

Lee's Democratic opponent for Bennett's seat, Sam Granato, said if elected he would "fight for our state's best interests by strongly opposing any future attempts to import foreign nuclear waste to Utah."

EnergySolutions intends to help the governments of Italy and hopefully other countries build and operate their own disposal facilities, Christensen said.

He cited as an example of the company's new strategy a multimillion-dollar contract to provide engineering services and equipment to manage waste from a new nuclear power plant in China.

The new business strategy may include processing foreign waste at the company's facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn,, he said, and then shipping the materials back to the countries they came from for long-term storage. EnergySolutions is not withdrawing its request to bring in the Italian waste, Christensen said, but may modify it to make it clear the waste would not be stored by the company.

Christensen said Utah was never in danger of becoming "the dumping ground of the world," calling the phrase a slogan used by opponents. He said he started re-examining the company's plans to take foreign waste shortly after being named CEO about four months ago and decided the shift would be more profitable.

"This new strategy, in the long run, is in the best interests of our shareholders and our company," Christensen said. "I know some people will say this decision is backing down to political pressure, and that's OK. It doesn't offend me."

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com