DOE chief: Agency agreed to bury nuclear waste 'deeper' in Nevada

Dig a deeper trench to put it in.

Make sure it stays there for 10,000 years.

And when it’s hauled to Nevada from Tennessee, give it the same level of tight security as a nuclear bomb.

That’s how Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said his staff offered to bend to the concerns of Nevada officials when they held discussions in December about trucking a ton of unique, bomb-usable uranium waste from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to the Nevada National Security Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

By DOE standards, the waste baked inside 403 steel canisters of once-liquid nuclear fuel remnants reprocessed from a commercial New York power generation facility is considered to be low-level.

Yet it contains some of the same atom-splitting materials that have been used in nuclear bombs and one peculiar element that could be used in a so-called dirty bomb should it ever fall into the hands of terrorists.

The Department of Energy had planned to bury the canisters in a shallow landfill in the southeast corner of the sprawling, former Nevada Test Site. But after discussions late last year, “We agreed to do a different emplacement, a deeper emplacement. And we did that at the request of the state and we’re happy to do so,” Moniz said Tuesday in a session with reporters after he spoke at the National Clean Energy Summit at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

He did not say how much deeper the trench would be although 40-feet-deep is a typical depth for ordinary low-level waste packages.

Admittedly, though, he said this waste will not be treated as ordinary low-level radioactive waste nor will the standard, 1,000-year “time horizon” apply for containing the waste while it decays to safe levels. Instead, Moniz said, “We have agreed and did the analysis to look at a 10,000-year time horizon versus our standard rule of looking at a 1,000-year time horizon.”

In addition, he said, “This is very unusual for low-level waste to use our secure transport.”

He was referring to the Office of Secure Transportation, an arm of DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration that provides safe and secure transportation of nuclear weapons.

“So again, we are trying to be very accommodating and I think this is the discussion we’ll have today,” Moniz said before he went to the governor’s office in Las Vegas for a private, 30-minute meeting with Gov. Brian Sandoval to iron out concerns Sandoval has expressed with DOE’s plans.

Sandoval’s spokeswoman, Mary-Sarah Kinner, released a joint statement after the meeting that said Sandoval and Moniz “enjoyed another productive conversation” about the importance of the security site and its mission to DOE and Nevada.

The discussion included issues with uranium-tainted waste for the Oak Ridge lab “and creation of a working group to strengthen communication on these issues.”

Communication has been a problem in the past with memos that Moniz has referenced that he believed meant Nevada had signed off on the waste plan.

“Because the state does not actually have jurisdiction for judging the waste characteristics, the state does not write memos,” Moniz said. “But the department engages the state every step of the way. Then we summarize the meetings and copy the state officials. Those are the memos to which I was referring.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.