WASHINGTON — The Department of Energy is preparing to ship containers of highly radioactive, bomb-usable nuclear material for burial in a landfill at the Nevada National Security Site, a plan being weighed by state officials but declared troubling by some outside experts.
Trucks containing contaminated debris now arrive almost daily at the Area 5 landfill, in the southeast segment of the sprawling test site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The disposal area is part of the government’s cleanup of Cold War laboratories and factories.
But the Department of Energy, the state and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., have for months discussed the fate of 403 welded steel canisters containing an unusual and highly potent waste stream.
The canisters contain uranium-233 commingled with uranium-235, atom-splitting material with byproducts that can be used to make a bomb. They require heavy shielding and are handled only with remote-control cranes.
The Energy Department plans to start shipping the waste to Nevada this spring or summer, with shipments through August 2014, officials said. Currently under discussion are shipment security and whether the state would have a role in inspecting and escorting the trucks.
“This is nasty stuff. It’s safeguarded material that you watch over with lots of guns and make sure it is in a place you could safely say would be safe and people won’t be able to get to it,” said a federal official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the topic.
The material is not as “hot” as the high-level spent nuclear fuel once destined for a planned repository at Yucca Mountain, on the southwest edge of the national security site. The Obama administration quashed that project, opting to explore a new course for nuclear waste disposal.
But the uranium, at 250 to 300 rem, is as much as 1,500 times more radioactive than the low-level waste usually buried in Nevada, officials said.
Biological damage caused by radiation is measured in rems. Exposure to 400 to 450 rem “over a very short period” is considered a lethal dose.
Energy Department officials insist it would be impossible to retrieve and work with the ceramic material, its secure burial location and its high radioactivity. But some experts say it’s impossible to predict whether that will be the case hundreds of years from now, when the material will be less radioactive but still potentially dangerous.
CRITIC BLASTS DISPOSAL PLAN
Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies and a former Department of Energy senior adviser, is highly critical of the disposal plan, suggesting the department is “moving the goalposts” to justify burying the waste in Nevada rather than a more expensive disposal strategy.
“This, in my mind, creates a very terrible precedent because if this administration is concerned about control of loose nukes as it says it is, it shouldn’t be setting such an exceptionally bad example, disposing of essentially weapons-usable material in a landfill with a promise it will be 40-feet deep and don’t worry nobody will find it, we will have plenty of guards,” Alvarez said.
It, also raises a question, he said: “Is the state of Nevada willing to accept very large quantities of high-concentration radioactive materials for shallow land burial in the future?”
Joe Ziegler, a nuclear engineer and a consultant to Nye County, said there are probably other materials buried in Area 5 that are at least as radioactive as the uranium waste, which will be shipped from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
“I don’t think it’s dangerous as long as it is handled with the appropriate protocols,” Ziegler said. “A thousand years from now, it might be.”
Ziegler said it’s necessary to plan that far into the future with nuclear fuel or plutonium, in part to ensure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
“I’m not sure we’re doing that with this stuff,” Ziegler said.
Alvarez published his concerns in a paper that recently appeared in Science & Global Security, an arms control journal. Alvarez said he has been contacted by Reid’s office, and the senator’s nuclear issues adviser, Alex McDonough, later submitted questions to the Energy Department.
Reid, through his spokeswoman, declined comment.
Top Energy Department officials rejected Alvarez’s criticism.
“We have DOE orders that need to be followed with regard to disposal, to transportation,” said Frank Marcinowski, deputy assistant secretary for waste management. “We’ve done everything in compliance.”
Marcinowski said Nevada officials reviewed the proposed shipments and agree they meet the landfill’s “waste acceptance criteria.”
But Mary-Sarah Kinner, spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Sandoval, said Monday , “The proposed shipment is still being evaluated, and no decisions have been made.”
Mark Whitney, manager of environmental cleanup at Oak Ridge, said the uranium was bonded to the interior of each canister in a ceramiclike crystalline form when it was converted from a liquid to a solid. The mixture was embedded with neutron-absorbing metals and salts to reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear reaction.
“That makes it highly unlikely that anyone would be able to manipulate it, recover it and process it,” Whitney said.
The canisters, 2 feet long and 4 inches wide, would be buried in pockets as much as 10 feet below the floor of the existing disposal trench, which then would be filled as usual with less radioactive waste and then covered over.
ORIGIN OF THE WASTE
The waste, from a research program called the Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project, has been stored for decades at the Oak Ridge laboratory, where parts of the nation’s first atomic bombs were developed.
It is the end-product of thorium nuclear fuel that was irradiated at the Indian Point 1 reactor in New York from 1962 to 1965 and reprocessed at the commercial plant in West Valley, N.Y., in 1968.
Oak Ridge officials cleaning up an Oak Ridge building that holds various forms of U-233 have said direct disposal in Nevada would help save $600 million in remediation costs over 10 years. The officials have not made public the cost of shipping and burying the material, nor have they said how many truck shipments would be required.
Nevada and federal officials have clashed in the past over nuclear matters, most famously during the state’s long campaign against Yucca Mountain.
In 2004, Sandoval, then Nevada attorney general, threatened to sue the Department of Energy to prevent shipments of radioactive waste from a dismantled weapons plant in Ohio. It went to Texas instead.
“I think we’ve done a really good job of standing up on Yucca Mountain, but we certainly don’t do our state’s reputation any good when we accept this kind of stuff,” said Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which represents more than 40 Nevada advocacy groups.
“Even though it is not spent fuel, this is highly enriched uranium, and here we are putting it in these trucks and shipping it thousands of miles,” said Fulkerson, who wants the state to insist on the tightest security for the shipments.
“Not to be alarmist, but you have to look at the worst case, and this is what they use to make dirty bombs,” Fulkerson said. “They need to be extra, extra careful and need to handle this as if it were nuclear weapons.”
Unlike with Yucca Mountain, the state has a limited voice if the waste meets disposal criteria.
“There is no formal regulatory role for the state, but as a normal course of practice, we like to have a positive working relationship with any state where we are operating,” Marcinowski said.
Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.