U.S. company hopes to import up to 500 tons of Mexican radioactive waste

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(CBS/AP) YAKIMA, Wash. — A waste management company has applied to the federal government for a license to import up to 500 tons of radioactive waste from Mexico to south-central Washington, where the waste will be incinerated and the resulting ash returned to Mexico.

This isn't the first application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to import foreign radioactive waste, but it's among several recent proposals that have generated little opposition because the waste won't be permanently stored in the U.S.

In 2009, a proposal to import thousands of tons of radioactive waste from Italy, treat it and ultimately store the remnants in Utah was abandoned following public outcry.

The latest application was filed April 3 by Atlanta-based Perma-Fix Environmental Solutions Inc. A public comment period on the application ends Thursday.

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According to the application, the company would begin importing up to 500 tons of radioactively contaminated materials this year from Mexico's Laguna Verde Nuclear Power Plant near Veracruz for incineration, and continue through March 31, 2017.

The company applied for a second application to export the resulting ash back to Mexico, and said no waste would be imported from Mexico until that country had approved a permit to import the resulting ash.

Applications to import foreign waste are unusual but not unprecedented, said David McIntyre, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The low-level waste in question generally involves protective clothing and tools that have some degree of contamination. Incinerating it reduces the volume and makes it easier to dispose of the waste.

The waste would cross the border in Laredo, Texas and travel by truck on interstate highways to the Perma-Fix facility in Richland, Wash., near the Hanford nuclear reservation, according to the application.

"It's not particularly hazardous stuff," McIntyre said. "They just don't have the incineration capacity down there, whereas Perma-Fix is skilled at it and experienced at it."

The commission is still awaiting comment from the executive branch of the federal government, which usually comes from the Commerce or State Departments.

The Northwest Interstate Compact on Low-Level Radioactive Waste, which monitors radioactive waste shipments for eight Western states, did not oppose the application.

A similar license was issued last year to Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions to import low-level waste from a nuclear power plant in Germany for treatment and return the byproduct.

Radioactive materials are best managed as close to the site of generation as possible, said Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.

Ideally, Mexico should deal with its own nuclear waste and not send it to the U.S. for processing, he said.

"Importation of foreign radioactive waste into the U.S. sets a bad precedent and may well serve to discourage other countries from developing safe techniques to manage their own waste," he said.