Concerns raised over plans to bury bomb-usable nuclear material in Nevada

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.


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.


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 or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

Defense attorneys wrap up closing arguments in David Copperfield civil trial
Defense attorneys wrapped up their closing arguments in David Copperfield civil trial at the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas. A British tourist is suing Copperfield, his company and others claiming he suffered a traumatic brain injury after participating in an illusion in which the magician appears to make 13 people vanish. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
President Trump talks about how to pronounce "Nevada"
At the United States Naval Academy Graduation and Commissioning on May 25, 2018, President Donald Trump discusses how to pronounce "Nevada."
Amazon's Alexa Recorded and Shared a Couple’s Conversation
Amazon's Alexa Recorded and Shared a Couple’s Conversation News station KIRO 7 reported a Portland couple’s conversation was recorded and sent to one of their contacts via their Amazon Echo device. They found out when the husband’s employee called him saying, via KIRO 7 The voice-activated assistant is used by more than 60 million U.S. consumers, according to Bloomberg. But what will happen if these devices become digital spies within our homes? Daniel Kahn Gillmor, Daniel Kahn Gillmor, to Bloomberg Daniel Kahn Gillmor, to Bloomberg Amazon Inc. issued a statement that the incident in Portland is an “extremely rare occurrence,” and the company did not state whether it was a bug or due to hacking.
Neighbor talks about 15-year-old alleged shooter
Nolan Turner, 15, who lives across the street from the 15-year-old who allegedly shot and killed his father and shot his mother talks about growing up with the teen. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas teen kills dad, wounds mom before she shoots him, police say
A 15-year-old boy shot his father to death and wounded his mother in a west valley home Thursday morning before being wounded when she got a gun and returned fire, according to Las Vegas police. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers were called just after 10:45 a.m. Thursday on the 9900 block of Barrier Reef Drive, near West Sahara Avenue and South Hualapai Way. In a briefing near the scene, police said the teenager shot his dad in the head, killing him, then shot his mom, who got another gun and returned fire. They said the boy jumped a wall and ran away, but was arrested about a quarter-mile away. Both the teen and his mom were hospitalized and are expected to survive, police said. Police did not immediately identify the family members but said the man was in his early 50s and the woman was in her late 40s. K.M. Cannon/ Las Vegas Review-Journal
Las Vegas Native Troy Brown Jr. Preparing for NBA
Former Centennial High School player Troy Brown Jr., now 18 and one of the most accomplished high school basketball players in the history of Las Vegas, is back in his hometown preparing to play in the NBA. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Closing arguments at David Copperfield civil trial
Attorneys for British tourist Gavin Cox and MGM Resorts make their closing arguments in the David Copperfield civil trial at the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
UNLV Surgeon Performs Successful Rare Pancreas Surgery
Las Vegas resident Mary Duda underwent a pancreatoduodenectomy, or Whipple procedure, for her pancreatic cancer. While the grandmother of 19 recovered, her doctors say she's one of the lucky ones. Pancreatic surgery can be risky and has a high morbidity rate. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Las Vegas police explorer sentenced to 25 years to life in prison
Former Las Vegas police explorer Joshua Honea sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for sexual assault of a minor, but was allowed to remain free on bail pending appeal. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Golden Knights Fans Line Up to Grab Their Conference Champions Gear
Golden Knights fans lined up at City National Arena Monday to snap up Conference Champions gear and other memorabilia the day after the Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup Conference Finals. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas-Review Journal)
Las Vegas shooting survivor has surprise reunion
Oct. 1 mass shooting survivors Taylor Stovall and Parker Gabel meet for the first time since Gabel helped the injured Stovall to an ambulance the night of the shooting. Stovall, then 17, was shot in the arm. They met Friday at the Tropicana.
Hawaii volcano presser
Talmadge Magno of Hawaii Civil Defense gives an update on the Kilauea volcano
Same-Sex Weddings on the Rise in Las Vegas
Allie and Tara Shima finally tied the knot. They've been together for five years and have both been married before. This time, they wanted something simple, quick and cheap, but it still had to feel special. The couple chose Las Vegas. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Courtyard Homeless Resource Center begins building in Las Vegas
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Ward 3 Councilman Bob Coffin kicked off the demolition of buildings where the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center will be built. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Father of fallen Marine to throw out first pitch
Rich Perez, father of Rich Perez Jr. who died while serving in the Marines in Iraq, talks about throwing out the first pitch at the Las Vegas 51s baseball game on Memorial Day. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
"Yanny" or "Laurel" hearing test has gone viral
'Yanny' or 'Laurel?' This Hearing Test Has Gone Viral This hearing test has gone viral on social media with some hearing "Yanny" while others swear hearing "Laurel." The voice is actually saying "Laurel," but the pitch was changed, causing some to hear "Yanny."
LVMPD Briefs on Year's Sixth Officer-Involved Shooting
Las Vegas police have identified the officer who shot a shovel-wielding woman on Saturday as 23-year-old Ondre Wills.
Police release body camera footage of shovel-wielding woman
Las Vegas police identified the woman they said threatened neighbors with a skillet Saturday night. Officer Ondre Wills, 23, shot at Sommer Richards, 34, multiple times on Big Sur Drive, near Nellis Boulevard and Desert Inn Road. Police responded to the area after receiving reports that the woman was armed with a shovel. Police said the woman chased neighbors and a security guard. Wills got between Richards and the others and repeatedly told her to drop the shovel. The woman instead turned and moved toward a person who was standing nearby before the officer fired shots. Police said she bit another officer as he attempted to render aid. Richards remains in serious but stable condition.
College of Southern Nevada Graduates 2017-18 Class
The College of Southern Nevada's graduation ceremony was held at the Thomas & Mack Center Monday. The 2017-18 class was the institution's largest in history. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Metro looking for suspect in bank robbery.
On Jan. 22, a man robbed a bank in the 8700 block of West Sahara Avenue.
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee at opening of U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, at opening ceremony of U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, speaks about the violence in Gaza. (Debra J. Saunders/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Supreme Court strikes down law banning sports betting outside Nevada
The Supreme Court has overturned a federal ban on sports gambling. States other than Nevada will be allowed to provide bookmaking and betting at casinos and race tracks. Justice Samuel Alito said Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, “each State is free to act on its own.” The vote was 6-3. One research firm estimates that 32 states will likely offer sports betting within five years.
Westcare Clinic Crucial to Las Vegan's Addiction Recovery
Christian Hunt, 21, was sent to Westcare in September after he ended up on drugs and in the hospital. If it weren't for the nonprofit's Community Triage Center, Hunt said he would still be using drugs. Instead, he's been sober for six months, and stopped using methamphetamines seven months ago. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Foundation Provides Full Rides for Clark County Students
Somewhere along the banks of the Ohio River in Owensboro, Kentucky, a group of students from Sin City are pursuing a higher education. Feature on the 38 Clark County students that the Rogers Foundation has given full rides to for Kentucky Wesleyan College. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Flames engulf house in Henderson
Clark County firefighters battled a house fire early Friday morning in Henderson. The house, located near Volunteer Boulevard and Executive Airport Drive, was fully engulfed in flames about 2 a.m. Shifting winds sent massive plumes of smoke across the southern Las Vegas Valley sky. As of 3 a.m. , the cause of the fire was not known and no injuries were reported.
Harvey Weinstein’s Estranged Wife Speaks Out for First Time
Harvey Weinstein’s Estranged Wife Speaks Out for First Time Georgina Chapman was profiled for 'Vogue’s' June issue, speaking on her estranged husband for the first time since he was accused of sexual assault in October. Georgina Chapman, to Vogue Georgina Chapman, to Vogue Chapman, who has two children with Weinstein, also said she has been seeing a therapist and that has helped her move forward. Georgina Chapman, to Vogue Georgina Chapman, to Vogue Read the full profile on Chapman in Vogue’s June issue or online at
Bark-Andre Furry the dog is a Vegas Golden Knights hockey fan
The furriest fan of the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights is growing into a social media sensation. Bark-Andre Furry the Jack Russell terrier has thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Suspect Sought In Robbery Attempt
Attorney Gloria Allred on case against Benjamin Sparks
Attorney Gloria Allred is representing the victim in a "sex slave" case against GOP political consultant Benjamin Sparks.
2018 Las Vegas Review-Journal High School Journalism Awards winners
Some winners of the 2018 Las Vegas Review-Journal High School Journalism Awards receive their awards.
News Headlines
Local Spotlight
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like