A pair of lawmakers are questioning a bid by EnergySolutions Inc. to import 20,000 tons of radioactively contaminated material from Italy through ports in New Orleans and Charleston, W.Va., bound for the company's facility in Tennessee, with some of it ultimately reaching Utah.
    Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., both senior members on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last week concerned that the company won't know what kind of waste it would be getting before it arrived in the ports.
    If the waste arrives at the ports and is more contaminated than EnergySolutions is equipped to handle, the congressmen asked, what would happen then and how could the NRC guarantee the material would not be a risk to the public?
    The representatives note that EnergySolutions went so far as to apply for an export license along with its import license in order to return waste to Italy if it proves to be more irradiated than planned.
    EnergySolutions says that the waste will be carefully inspected before it leaves the Italian ports to ensure it falls within the permitted limits.
    "EnergySolutions will know exactly what the contents of the waste will be before it leaves Italy," said Greg Hopkins, senior vice president for communications.
    The company applied for an export license, it says, in the "extremely unlikely event" that any material does slip through the screening, so it can easily be returned to Italy without delays. Hopkins said that is the "NRC's general practice."
    Shipments of about 200,000 cubic feet per year could start next spring and continue over a five-year span, assuming the permits are approved.
    EnergySolutions plans to ship the waste to Bear Creek, Tenn., where metals will be melted down and made into shielding for nuclear facilities. Much of the remainder of the waste - things like contaminated paper, plastic or wood - will be incinerated.
    About 8 percent of the total imported material will end up at EnergySolutions' Utah low-level waste dump in Clive, located about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City.
    Other companies have received approval from the NRC to import radioactive material, and EnergySolutions' metals facility has imported more than 2.2 million pounds of metals from Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom since 1995 to be made into shields.
    The congressmen state that the current application is unique, however, because of the volume of waste that would be shipped.
    "That's a lot of waste," said Arjun Makhijani, executive director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a nuclear-watchdog group. "As far as I know, it's unprecedented for such a large amount to come to this country for disposal."
    They asked for a response to their inquiry to the NRC by the end of the month.
    Before approving the license, the NRC must publish a notice in the Federal Register and allow comments from the public and affected government entities. The notice has not yet been published.
    Earlier this month, EnergySolutions went public, raising nearly $700 million in its initial public offering.

    * The Associated Press contributed to this report.