Documents detail Nevada, DOE talks on uranium waste

WASHINGTON — Documents made public on Friday show Nevada environmental officials and the Department of Energy took part in discussions late last year over burying highly radioactive uranium waste in the state. But they stop short of saying there was a deal.

In an Aug. 12 letter to Gov. Brian Sandoval, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection had “active participation” in talks about the potent composition of waste from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that DOE planned to dispose in its landfill at the Nevada National Security Site.

A Dec. 4 memo from a DOE environmental manager to a counterpart on the state level details a “resolution” to Nevada concerns about the waste, laying out an additional study DOE would perform and a promise to bury the material two feet deeper in 40-foot deep trenches at the Area 5 landfill on what was formerly called the Nevada Test Site.

At a meeting of a test site waste review panel the next day, a handrwritten note on the agenda noted “state withdrew their opposition,” alongside a listing of the Oak Ridge material.

Other documents indicate a state official was present at a meeting where the material was on the agenda, and others were copied on a memo in which DOE told Oak Ridge officials to begin preparations to ship.

Moniz had referenced the discussions and the documents in testimony to the U.S. Senate last month to support DOE’s belief it had the green light to ship 403 canisters containing highly radioactive and bomb-usable uranium material from Tennessee for burial at the landfill in the southeast quadrant of the government range, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The plan was brought to a halt, at least for the time being, when Gov. Brian Sandoval in June came out against it and sought a meeting with Moniz.

The documents released Friday provide fresh detail of talks that took place last fall and winter between state and federal officials. They do not include anything signed by Nevada higher-ups, or where state officials specifically consent to the plan.

DOE officials said that would not be expected because the state has no official role to play under protocols for material destined for landfill disposal.

“We don’t need them to check the box,” but DOE loops in the state on such matters “because the relationship is important to us,” said a department official who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Leo Drozdoff, director of Nevada Conservation and Natural Resources, said the documents reflect only a portion of the state’s concerns about the landfill plan, and that key questions remain unanswered.

He maintained Nevada leaders made clear to DOE that essentially nothing would be settled until everything was settled, including thorny policy issues about the future of the test site for disposal of other exotic forms of waste.

“We are looking at this issue holistically,” Drozdoff said. “We relayed that to DOE and to their credit they said that’s fine.”

For instance, Drozdoff said there is “absolute ambiguity” about how the waste would be transported, even as Moniz has said DOE has agreed to use maximum security.

“There isn’t any sort of transportation plan,” Drozdoff said. “We had three or four go-rounds on that.”

Also, the Tennessee waste, which was created through the irradiation of thorium fuel at a commercial reactor in New York, is significantly different in origin from other forms of low-level nuclear waste brought to the landfill from environmental cleanup projects around the country.

The DOE disposal strategy has been criticized by nonproliferation experts as setting a bad precedent. The Oak Ridge canistered waste is a solid mixture of uranium-233 and uranium-235, material with byproducts that could be used to make a dirty bomb. It also contains highly radioactive uranium-232, which would require special shielding for transport and robotic equipment to unload and bury.

As well, some Nevada officials have expressed worry that accepting the Tennessee waste only would lead the government to send more dangerous forms of nuclear material to the site.

Efforts during the spring to organize a variety of meetings involving state, local and federal officials to hash through the issues failed, Drozdoff said, leading Sandoval ultimately to bring the entire matter to a halt.

The documents were released separately by Sandoval’s office and by DOE in Washington.

At the same time, representatives from both sides sought to dial down controversy after Moniz and Sandoval met on Tuesday and agreed to appoint a working group of aides to explore possible resolutions.

The Department of Energy self-regulates its activities at the test site and it has not been clear whether Nevada could halt the disposal if it wanted although state lawyers have researched possible legal avenues.

Sandoval “is opposed to this material coming to the test site,” his communications adviser Stewart Bybee said. “However he also recognizes the state’s options are fairly limited to stop the Department of Energy from bringing this to the state.”

Sandoval is hopeful the working group “can address the concerns of the state and also try to facilitate a better working relationship with the department,” Bybee said.

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

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