Burying a ton of orphaned uranium waste from Tennessee at the Nevada National Security Site might require installing a concrete container to keep its radioactive ingredients out of the environment and its dirty bomb material from falling into the wrong hands, according to Nye County officials who were at a closed-door meeting this week.
And with a half life of 704 million years for its main component, uranium-235 — the atom-splitting material used in the first U.S. nuclear bomb — they wonder if the Department of Energy can maintain high-security vigilance and keep radioactive contaminants from seeping into the environment long after its containment has decayed.
“Having to rely on the government to maintain security is an issue. It’s very difficult to look that far into the future,” said Darrell Lacy, director of the Nye County Nuclear Waste Repository Project Office.
“We’re hoping to get our questions answered. They’re going to do some sort of engineered barriers to put this into a trench. They could have some kind of hardened concrete structure in the bottom of the pit. We don’t know,” Lacy said.
He made the statement after National Nuclear Security Administration experts huddled behind closed doors Wednesday with more than a dozen state and local officials to discuss DOE’s plans to bury 403 welded-steel canisters of solid, uranium-tainted waste from the Oak Ridge, Tenn., national laboratory.
The waste includes remnants of New York’s commercial nuclear power and reprocessing operations from a half-century ago. The waste was converted from a liquid form to a solid at the Oak Ridge lab in the mid-1980s and baked inside the canisters with cadmium compounds to stop neutrons from triggering an atom-splitting chain reaction.
The canisters were stored in a building where parts of the nation’s first atomic bombs were developed. The historic building is being cleaned up, and disposing the canisters in Nevada would save the federal government $600 million in remediation costs over 10 years.
In a statement after the three-hour meeting at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s North Las Vegas office, Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen said there will be “negative perceptions” regardless of how the operation plays out at the security site’s Area 5 landfill, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Schinhofen said officials from the state of Nevada and the Department of Energy agreed to pursue an information exchange to address the public’s concerns about health and safety issues.
“However, I believe it is impossible for any reasonable thinking person to understand the state’s acceptance of this operation in the context of the state’s hypocritical opposition to very similar issues associated with Yucca Mountain,” he said. He was referring to DOE’s abandoned plans for entombing highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel in the ridge, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
“At least at Yucca Mountain the material will be buried in a mountain while this will be buried only 40 feet in soil. If this is acceptable to the State then how can they object to Yucca Mountain? At least they should be calling for the DOE and NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to move forward with the licensing to prove their position that it is unsafe,” Schinhofen said.
Nevada officials have no regulatory authority to veto the Oak Ridge shipments but the state has an advisory role on waste-acceptance decisions through a 1992 agreement with the Department of Energy.
In addition to uranium-235, the waste shipments will include another isotope that has been used in nuclear bombs, uranium-233, and a small amount of uranium-232, which has a 70-year half-life. That means after seven cycles, or 490 years, its radioactive punch is reduced by 99 percent.
Uranium-232 requires heavy shielding and remote-control handling because it emits dangerous levels of gamma radiation that could be used to make a dirty bomb.
Bob Halstead, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said disposing the material as low-level nuclear waste is allowed under DOE regulations although similar plutonium waste would have to be disposed in New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
“DOE is self-regulating and there is a gap in the regulations the way uranium-233 is regulated. Yet, it behaves in the environment more like plutonium-239,” Halstead said.
“No final decisions have been put in writing regarding either disposal or transportation plans,” he said. “Discussions are still ongoing.”
Gov. Brian Sandoval has yet to give his view on disposing uranium waste at the former Nevada Test Site.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.