The Utah Senate took another step Wednesday toward allowing EnergySolutions to accept shipments of depleted uranium at its radioactive waste landfill near Grantsville in Tooele County.
Senators voted 23-6 to advance HB220, which signals state support for the company to take large amounts of a kind of low-level radioactive material that grows more hazardous over time.
EnergySolutions, based in Salt Lake City, is vying with competitors to take shipments of depleted uranium from government facilities in Ohio and Kentucky — but it still needs to complete a complex and expensive “performance assessment” by state regulators, which was launched in 2012 and is still underway.
HB220, which now advances to a final vote of the Senate, essentially assures EnergySolutions — a large political donor on Utah’s Capitol Hill — that if the company passes that assessment and also gains approval from the head of the state Division of Radiation Control, full state consent for the waste will be granted, with key conditions added Wednesday. Many of the bill’s vocal supporters are recipients of EnergySolutions campaign contributions.
Supporters on the Senate floor played down safety worries over depleted uranium and noted that accepting the waste shipments offered economic benefits to the state. Shipments coming into EnergySolutions storage facility at Clive would also be subject to a 12 percent tax on its arrival in Utah, likely to generate more than $3 million yearly.
Last year, lawmakers approved a $1.7 million reduction in state fees for EnergySolutions.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the U.S. faces “a challenge with environmentally responsible ways of dealing with this waste” and that arguments depleted uranium could jeopardize aquifers or pose a public safety hazard on Utah’s roads “are no more valid now than they were 18 years ago.”
Sen. Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, said depleted uranium was already used as a shield in transporting medical waste on public roads, while others noted its widespread use in smoke detectors and exit signs.
“And we are not, to my knowledge, dropping dead like flies from exposure,” Hemmert said. “This is the right thing to do. This is the responsible thing to do.”
But opponents warned of potential hazards from the waste, with Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, noting that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had highlighted difficulties of storing it in subsurface facilities, such as EnergySolutions’ landfill at Clive.
“This depleted uranium is hotter that other types of waste sent to New Mexico,” Iwamoto said. “Should this not be sent to New Mexico?”
Iwamoto was joined in opposing HB220 by Sens. Luz Escamilla and Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City; Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City; along with Sen. Kathleen Reibe, R-Cottonwood Heights, and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.
Sponsoring Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tooele, told colleagues Wednesday that concerns voiced earlier by Gov. Gary Herbert over HB220 had been allayed by new changes to the bill. The state, Sandall said, will now also require a guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy that it would assume management of the storage cell where the waste is kept, in perpetuity.
“It is well for our state to believe in the science,” Sandall said, “to make sure we have the scientific assurance this will be safe for the state of Utah.”
EnergySolutions was one of sitting lawmakers’ top donors last year, pouring $45,000 into their election campaigns. Hemmert, the Senate majority whip, was the single largest recipient, taking $4,000 from the company. Bramble received $2,500 and Sandall, $2,000. Sen. Gene Davis, the only Democrat to vote for the measure, accepted $1,000.
None of the senators voting against the measure took donations from EnergySolutions.