Titus concerned about plans to bury nuclear waste at test site

WASHINGTON — Rep. Dina Titus charged Friday that the Department of Energy has been slow to answer questions and concerns about plans to bury potent uranium waste at the Nevada National Security Site and how it will be transported there.

“I was disturbed about not being briefed so I can get more information about just exactly what this is,” Titus said. “It’s likely to come right through my district, and we don’t know what it is or where it’s going.”

Among other concerns, she said, is whether the disposal plan “is just kind of a way to make the test site a de facto Yucca Mountain since that’s not going forward.” The program to build a high-level nuclear waste repository at the Yucca site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas was terminated in 2009 after a long state fight.

“We’ve had this image that we’ve had to fight forever,” Titus said. “Nevada is not a wasteland, and we certainly don’t want to backtrack on that message.”

Titus, a Las Vegas Democrat, said she called the White House this week after attempts to reach DOE officials went unanswered. On Friday evening, the department got back to Titus and said its plans “are still being finalized,” according to Titus spokeswoman Caitlin Teare.

Nuclear waste will be on the agenda when Nevada’s six-member congressional delegation meets on Tuesday, officials said.

In the meantime, Titus was the first lawmaker to speak up after a report that the Department of Energy is preparing to dispose of 403 canisters of nuclear waste containing bomb-usable uranium-233 and uranium-235 in the Area 5 landfill of the Nevada National Security Site.

The material would be more radioactive than other low-level waste buried in 40-foot trenches in the landfill. Some experts have expressed more concern that the atom-splitting byproducts would remain potentially dangerous hundreds or thousands of years into the future when who knows what if any safeguards would be in place.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has worked with state officials monitoring the DOE plans, remained silent Friday. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., was scheduled to be briefed next week, his spokeswoman said.

Representatives of Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, whose district includes the national security site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, met Friday with Darrell Lacy, director of the Nye County nuclear waste office. Spokesman Tim Hogan said Horsford was seeking more information before forming an opinion.

Republican Reps. Mark Amodei and Joe Heck have been mum.

Titus said she has spoken with Reid’s office “and he, too, was concerned about not getting enough information on this, but I think he is in the loop now and we want to get ourselves in the loop as well.”

Unlike with Yucca Mountain, the state of Nevada does not have a formal veto over government activities at the security site, but it exercises a level of oversight. DOE Deputy Secretary Frank Marcinowski said state officials reviewed the DOE disposal plan and approved of it, while talks continue on how the material will be transported.

But Gov. Brian Sandoval said through a spokeswoman this week that “no decisions have been made.”

Nevada leaders have been supportive of the test site, where the government conducted open-air and then underground nuclear tests until 1992 and continues to monitor the nuclear arsenal through subcritical laboratory experiments.

In recent years, the test site mission has expanded and diversified into cyber-security, emergency responder training, hazardous material research and other projects, with Reid a driver in steering federal funds.

As part of the drive to broaden its scope, Reid and then-Sen. John Ensign passed an amendment in 2009 changing the name of the Nevada Test Site to the Nevada National Security Site.

Titus, a former professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, wrote a book in 2001 about the Nevada Test Site called “Bombs in the Backyard.” She said she wondered whether more nuclear waste is in the state’s interest.

“We’re trying to develop other kinds of economic projects out there,” she said. “If we are putting more nuclear waste out there that’s still low-level but higher than what’s out there now, will that have a negative impact on the possibility of using it for other economic development?”

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