SALT LAKE CITY -- EnergySolutions Inc. said Wednesday it is abandoning its plans to dispose of nuclear waste from Italy in Utah's west desert and instead will try to help open a disposal facility in that country.
The Salt Lake City-based company had been seeking to import up to 20,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste from Italy's shuttered nuclear power program. After processing in Tennessee, about 1,600 tons would have been buried in Utah.
The proposal drew opposition from two Republican Utah governors and led the U.S. House to pass a bill banning the importation of foreign nuclear waste. The measure has languished in the Senate.
The bill's lead sponsors, U.S. Reps. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., contend that the U.S. should preserve capacity at its disposal sites for domestic waste at a time the nation is increasingly looking at expanding the use of nuclear power.
The Utah disposal facility is the only one currently available to 36 states, but EnergySolutions has repeatedly said capacity is not a problem at the site.
Matheson said Wednesday his legislation is still needed, noting the company could decide to import foreign waste in the future.
"It's a management decision, and management teams can change over time," he said.
However, Matheson said he might be open to allowing waste to come into the U.S. for processing if it is disposed of abroad. EnergySolutions has indicated it would still want to process foreign waste in the U.S. before returning it to the host country or another with a disposal site.
The company has long held that it only wanted to dispose of foreign nuclear waste in an effort to build relationships with other countries and build disposal facilities abroad.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert thanked EnergySolutions in a statement Wednesday, saying its decision is welcome news.
"As governor, I have opposed, and I continue to oppose, the importation of foreign nuclear waste to Utah," Herbert said. "This decision by Energy Solutions is the right one, and is personally appreciated by me."
EnergySolutions CEO Val Christensen said the company doesn't envision owning any disposal facilities overseas, but it would seek to be the contractor that operates and manages them. It already has a similar arrangement in place in South Carolina.
Christensen said it was unclear how quickly a disposal facility could be built abroad. In the U.S. it typically takes several years just to get regulatory approval once a site is chosen.
He said the company would not suffer financially because of the new strategy.
"We don't believe we're taking any hit," Christensen said. "We believe that this new strategy in the long run is in the best interests of our shareholders and the company financially speaking because it establishes longer-term relationships."
EnergySolutions shares fell 24 cents, or 4.6 percent, to $5.02 in afternoon trading.
The company's decision will not affect a federal court challenge to determine whether Utah can use a regional compact to dictate where the company can accept waste from. Christensen said that issue still needs to be settled.
An environmental group that helped lead opposition to the waste import plan celebrated the company's announcement.
"We're glad EnergySolutions finally figured out what Utahns have said for two years -- that Italy should take care of its own waste," said Vanessa Pierce, executive director of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.