Nevada nuclear waste challenge: DOE officials thought they had a deal

WASHINGTON — The Department of Energy thought it had an agreement that would have cleared the way for highly radioactive uranium waste to be shipped to Nevada and buried at its national security landfill, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told Congress on Tuesday.

Moniz said Energy Department leaders held months of discussions with Nevada officials and promised special arrangements for the material, including maximum security for trucks that would be carrying canisters of solidified nuclear waste.

Thinking a deal was in hand, Moniz said the Energy Department began to prepare the material presently stored at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for shipment West. That plan was thrown a curve when Gov. Brian Sandoval declared on June 20 he opposed allowing the waste, which contains bomb-usable elements, into Nevada.

“There were long discussions held, many memos signed on specifically this particular low level waste movement.” Moniz said at a U.S. Senate hearing. “That exchange of memos to us was saying this works, with our special precautions.

“The delay now is costing us quite a bit of money,” Moniz said. He declined afterwards to say how much.

The Energy Department’s top official gave his side of the story that has put the government and Nevada at a new impasse over nuclear waste. While not as deadly as high level nuclear waste, the Oak Ridge canisters contain uranium-233 commingled with uranium-235, atom-splitting materials with by-products that experts say could be used to make a dirty bomb.

Moniz appeared at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing focused on  nuclear waste legislation. But Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., asked about the material in light of an initial, unsuccessful effort by Moniz and Sandoval to sort it out over the phone two weeks ago.

“If DOE wants a partner in the state of Nevada on activities at the (Nevada National Security Site), then we need DOE to act like a partner,”  Heller said. “I believe the DOE needs to be more responsible and more responsive to the governor of the state.”

Sandoval spokesman Mary-Sarah Kinner said Tuesday talks with the Energy Department are ongoing while Sandoval “has been and continues to be opposed to the shipment of U-233 through Nevada.”  Sandoval and Moniz may meet in August or September, officials said.

“His utmost priority remains the health, safety and welfare of Nevada residents,” Kinner said of Sandoval.

In the meantime, Moniz said he understood Nevada will be sending representatives to Oak Ridge National Laboratory “to look at the materials directly.”

“We are trying to work out an agreement to allow us to move forward,” he said.

On Tuesday, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said she confirmed through a separate briefing that the uranium-233 shipments are just one batch of Oak Ridge nuclear waste heading for burial in Nevada.

She said the department is preparing further shipments of uranium waste in 2015, and also plans to dispose of plutonium batteries that were used to generate power aboard NASA space capsules.

“This is not just a couple of trucks,” she said. “This is a long-term project they have in mind.”

Titus met with the Energy Department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman, about the Nevada National Security Site, the sprawling reservation 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas that includes the government’s landfill in the southeast quadrant known as Area 5.

Titus said Poneman delivered the same message as Moniz, saying the Energy Department believed issues involved with the uranium waste had been worked out months ago.

“They were under the impression, as the secretary was, that they were working well with the state and this had been resolved back in December, at least December,” said Titus, who had declared herself skeptical of the disposal plan when it was first reported in the spring.

Titus, who represents Las Vegas and areas surrounding the Strip, also said she was troubled that state officials had asked for the waste to handled by the Office of Secure Transportation, which normally deals with shipments of nuclear weapons.

Security would be so tight that the state would not be given information when or how the uranium waste would move, she said. On the other hand, the number of shipments would decrease from 200 to 29.

Using the Office of Secure Transportation “takes away any oversight, any decisions, any information out of the hands of the state,” she said. “It is totally secure but they can’t tell us where it is going. That means it could come through the heart” of Las Vegas.

Nevada officials are wrestling with a host of issues involving the Nevada National Security Site, including a change in the criteria for nuclear waste to be disposed in deep trenches at the Area 5 landfill.  State leaders believe the change is a precursor for the government to dump increasingly potent nuclear material at the site.

Lawyers for Nevada are said to be researching possible legal action. Titus said she does not believe the shipments can be stopped from going to the security site, which is largely self-regulated by the government.

“There is no provision that the governor can say he doesn’t want it, and that will stop it,” she said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.