Sandoval opposes burial of nuclear waste at Nevada National Security Site

WASHINGTON — Gov. Brian Sandoval said Thursday he will refuse to allow the burial of highly radioactive and bomb-usable uranium waste in a government landfill in Nevada.

Sandoval challenged the Department of Energy’s plan to dispose of 403 canisters containing ingredients used to make dirty bombs in trenches at the Nevada National Security Site, saying it is too dangerous and should be sent to the department’s New Mexico repository instead.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Sandoval charged the department was attempting to exploit a gap in its regulations to classify the waste as “low level” and permissible for the landfill at Area 5 in the sprawling range 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Doing that, he said, “sets a dangerous precedent” that could make Nevada the destination for other exotic forms of nuclear waste as the government performs environmental cleanups at former weapons laboratories and factories.

Sandoval called for a meeting with Moniz to go over a range of issues, including complaints that the Energy Department has treated local governments and Indian tribes in an “unsatisfactory manner” in forming disposal plans.

Sandoval’s declaration puts the state and federal government on a potential collision path over operations at the Nevada National Security Site, where the Department of Energy conducts a range of activities in addition to its historic mission of performing nuclear weapons tests and experiments.

One of its programs is the dumpsite where trucks arrive almost every day to dispose of contaminated debris in trenches 40 feet deep.

The department has largely self-regulating powers when it comes to the Nevada site and has had a generally cooperative relationship with the state.

Officials said the state attorney general’s office has examined what authorities Nevada could cite in an effort to make Sandoval’s refusal stick but declined to discuss them.

Sandoval asserted himself in the first comments he has made about the uranium waste stored for decades at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that is targeted for relocation as part of a cleanup at the Tennessee site.

The material would be more radioactive than low-level waste buried at Area 5. Experts in nuclear nonproliferation express more concern that the waste would remain potentially dangerous hundreds or thousands of years into the future.

Originally in liquid form, the waste was solidified and baked inside two-foot-long canisters with cadmium compounds to prevent an atom-splitting nuclear reaction.

Defending the disposal strategy, Energy Department officials said it would be impossible for anyone to obtain the material and process it to the point it would pose a threat.

On Thursday night, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would back Sandoval.

Reid earlier had dismissed concerns about the Oak Ridge material, saying it was not as dangerous as high-level nuclear waste that once was destined for a repository at Yucca Mountain.

But Nevada officials have become more concerned recently about Energy Department efforts to modify waste rules so that higher concentrations of radioactive matter would be accepted for disposal at the test site.

Reid said in a statement that Nevada “must receive assurances waste acceptance standards for NNSS are not being modified solely to accommodate this waste.”

“With the information I have today, I will not support the transportation of these canisters,” he said.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., is of the same mind.

“Since I learned about the proposed transfer of nuclear waste from Oak Ridge, I’ve had concerns and voiced them adamantly with the White House and the DOE,” Titus said Thursday. “Until I receive satisfactory answers to all of my questions, I will oppose any transfers of nuclear material. Nevada is not America’s dumping ground.”

The Department of Energy had contended the uranium material legally qualified for disposal at the landfill. While that may be accurate, Sandoval said, the canisters “are not commonplace low-level waste.”

“Even if these canisters meet a legalistic definition of low-level waste, they are not suitable for shallow land burial at NNSS,” Sandoval said in his letter.

Review-Journal reporter Keith Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.