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Tea Party Senate Candidate Mike Lee Tried to Dump 1,600 Tons of European Nuclear Waste on Utah

With an assist from FreedomWorks, Mike Lee grabbed Utah's Senate nomination from incumbent Bob Bennett. Now he shows he's not a states' rights kind of guy.

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The son of Rex E. Lee, who worked as Ronald Reagan's solicitor general, candidate Mike Lee followed in his father's footsteps by studying constitutional law at Brigham Young University, where his father also served as university president. After graduating, Lee went to work first as a law clerk for Utah Judge Dee Benson, and later for future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who was at that time sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, in New Jersey. From Alito and the Garden State, Lee returned to Utah and became Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman's general counsel.

In the summer of 2007, Lee took his expertise to Howrey LLP, an international law firm that made a total of $5 million lobbying for the tobacco industry in 2003 and 2004. During his time at the firm, Lee has worked on behalf of EnergySolutions, which sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Utah for the right to import and store nuclear waste from Italy.

Utah officials -- and 76 percent of the public -- objected to EnergySolutions' plan to dump 1,600 tons of Italian waste in their backyard. The state of Utah argued that the materials exceeded its pre-determined radioactive limit, which only allows low-level "Class A" materials. The Italian materials were of a higher grade, Class B and C. Lee and his peers claimed that EnergySolutions could bring the levels down by mixing the waste with lower, Class A materials, a process whose safety raises serious concerns for nuclear experts.

"The average concentration of radioactivity has to be certain, but can still have highly radioactive hot spots. If future generations build on that site, they're in jeopardy," said Mary Olson from the Nuclear Information Research Service.

You Tell Me It's the Constitution

In addition to opposing the radioactive level of the Italian waste, Utah officials, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, who last year introduced a federal bill that would ban foreign waste, also argued that international refuse strained the state's capacity to contain domestic materials. EnergySolutions was trying to trump the NRC's, and therefore Utah's, decision-making power.

But according to Lee and EnergySolutions' attention-deflecting Tea Party-ready defense, the issue was less about safety or the state's power and more about constitutional principles: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that states can only determine the type of materials they store, not whence they came.

The federal government, meanwhile, regulates foreign trade, meaning Washington, not Salt Lake City, had power over the Italian waste decision. Since they've already agreed to bring in nuclear materials, Lee argued, the state has no right "to pick and choose the sources from which it takes that waste."

"[The litigation] focused not on whether it was a good idea to bring that material in, but what government has the authority to do it," Lee said during a radio interview earlier this year. "It's only the federal government that can decide whether or not material can be imported." When asked later whether his case would "force" Utah to take unwanted materials, Lee replied, "Correct." States’ rights go right out the window and the federal government, anathema to the Tea Party, comes out on top.

Lee and FreedomWorks' true business interests, as opposed to Tea Party ideas, become more clear in FreedomWorks' spokesman Brandon's other explanation for their endorsement: "Lee, the first candidate to sign our Contract from America." That rigid document demands that signatories support "all-of-the-above" energy reform, a vague reference to the American Energy Act introduced in June of last year by House Minority Leader John Boehner.

While the act concerns hot-button issues like cap-and-trade and offshore drilling, it also tips the scales in the nuclear industry's favor.