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Bennett blocks N-waste measure

Salt Lake Tribune

Washington » Sen. Bob Bennett's reservations over legislation that would ban the importation of foreign radioactive waste are holding up any Senate action on the measure, its lead sponsor said Thursday.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who introduced the bill in the Senate, said he doesn't plan to push the legislation that has already zoomed through the House until he's able to assuage Bennett's opposition.

"Senator Bennett has some real concerns about it so I need to meet with him about how to go forward with this," Alexander told The Salt Lake Tribune just off the Senate floor Thursday. "Senator Bennett is a powerful force here in the United States Senate, and I'll probably have to try to accommodate his concerns in order to move the bill forward."

Tennessee has a big stake in the issue, as does Utah. The bill is aimed at halting Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions from carrying out its plan to bring 20,000 tons of radioactive waste from Italy to Tennessee for processing and then burying 1,600 tons of leftovers at the company's Utah site.

Supporters of the ban were elated this week as the House overwhelmingly passed the bill.

But Bennett says that because there is a legal question whether Utah can block the radioactive waste from being disposed at EnergySolutions' Tooele County landfill, he wants to wait until the courts have settled the matter before Congress weighs in.

"I don't see any attempt on the part of the Senate to do much with it," Bennett said.

Taken together, EnergySolutions executives, their spouses and the company's political action committee are the single largest source of contributions to Bennett's re-election bid, having donated $50,500 so far this cycle.

Alexander's bill, a companion to the House measure, has no co-sponsors and, 11 months after its introduction, has not seen the light of a committee hearing.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Thursday he hasn't made up his mind on the bill, though he questioned the need for legislation when the low-level waste doesn't pose any threat to the health or safety of the state's residents.

"I would be against dangerous nuclear waste coming into Utah. I think anybody would," Hatch said. "But this is low-level stuff.... [It's] not dangerous for Utah."

The Utah Republican said that EnergySolutions is a "good corporate citizen" and the concern over low-level radioactive waste -- which is all the company is licensed to accept -- was being overblown.

"I think the companies that are doing this have an argument to make that, 'Hey, since this meets the standards of what can be disposed of in our country, why should they be discriminated against?' " Hatch said.

The six-term senator, received about $20,000 from EnergySolutions employees in his 2006 campaign, but has not received any since. His current term lasts through 2012.

EnergySolutions President Val Christensen said his company "appreciates that Senator's Alexander, Bennett and Hatch are carefully weighing the impact of this legislation on American jobs and the economies of states it will affect. We agree that this legislation is unnecessary to preserve capacity for domestic nuclear waste."

Vanessa Pierce, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, which opposes allowing the Italian waste into the United States, says Bennett and Hatch are hesitant to take a position on the bill that may be unpopular with EnergySolutions.

Pierce questioned Bennett's close links to the company, noting that his top campaign consultant is Greg Hopkins, a former EnergySolutions' vice president.

"When you've got a former vice president for the nuclear waste company lobbying to bring this stuff into the country and fifty grand in campaign contributions, I'd say that's going to compromise your ability to take a position on this issue that is objective and reflective of what the populace wants," Pierce said. "I hope that his constituents raise that issue with him while he's on the campaign trail."