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Nevada faces rule change on storing radioactive materials

Managers of the government-controlled landfill at the Nevada National Security Site have changed their rules to accept containers of nuclear waste that are five times more radioactive than now allowed.

The May 29 broadening of the guidelines came with little public notice as the Department of Energy is seeking a burial ground for “hotter” pieces of radioactive gear and equipment from dismantled laboratories.

The waste generators include nuclear weapons facilities and a New York plant once used to reprocess nuclear fuel.

Nevada officials said they have been unable in recent weeks to get clear information about what the government has in mind for the installation 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas that has played a defining role in the state since the Cold War.

The new requirements allow the site to receive waste shipments so potent they must be off-loaded by remote-controlled cranes whose operators must wear radiation protection gear.

Without the combination of lead shielding, remote handling and protective gear, the workers would receive their annual radiation exposure limit in less than an hour, according to a nuclear waste consultant familiar with the plan.

Burying the waste in earthen cells also raises concerns for long-term environmental impact as well as the need to continuously guard the site for centuries to ensure the materials don’t fall into the hands of terrorists bent on using it for dirty bombs.

Besides the altered waste acceptance rules, state officials have raised questions about an environmental impact statement update the Department of Energy is now completing. It will guide activities for the next decade at the site, which was known as the Nevada Test Site before a name change in 2010 to signify an expanding mission.

On Thursday, two months after concerns about uranium waste made headlines, Gov. Brian Sandoval called for a meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to discuss the environmental impact statement and “troubling revisions” to the waste acceptance criteria. Sandoval told the Obama administration official he objects to DOE’s plan to dispose of long-lived, uranium-tainted waste at the site.

Both on the uranium waste and on the larger issue of test site rules and environmental regulations, “Nevada is not satisfied with the overall process that DOE has followed in developing its disposal and transportation plans,” Sandoval said in a letter to Moniz.

The controversy could test the relationship between the federal government and Nevada, where leaders believe they won a battle against locating a high-level nuclear waste repository in the state and don’t want to be seen as backsliding.

YUCCA FIGHT REVISITED?

While the new effort wouldn’t be on par with quashed plans to haul 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain — the volcanic-rock ridge on the southwest edge of the site — some state and local officials are sounding alarms over the change in waste acceptance rules.

After a two-decade battle over the terminated Yucca project, some fear the federal government is setting the table for an expansive campaign to truck hundreds of tons of other Cold War legacy waste to the security site landfill, containing levels of radioactivity much greater than allowed before.

Others, however, don’t see a problem.

Commissioners in rural Nye County, where the gateway to the security site represents economic opportunities, said they are willing to accept low- or high-level radioactive waste if it is safe.

“We will continue to ensure the long-term safety and security of the disposal activities of all levels of waste by working with the Department of Energy, Congress, and the State of Nevada to understand the details of the activities and the science supporting them,” Commissioner Dan Schinhofen said in a statement last week.

Besides raising the limit on allowable radioactivity, the changes would allow waste packages to hold 40 times the concentration of radioactive material.

“I would really like to hear what is going on that requires a 30- to 40-fold increase, essentially, in the amount of uranium isotopes that they could put in a 55-gallon drum,” Bob Halstead, executive director of the Nevada Nuclear Projects Agency, said in a June 10 presentation to the state Commission on Nuclear Projects.

DOE officials did not respond to specific questions about changes in the waste acceptance criteria last week. In a statement, they said the requirements are “routinely updated in cooperation with the State of Nevada to capture any new requirements from transportation, packaging, security, safety, or disposal rules and regulations. All proposed changes are reviewed by the State of Nevada Division of Environmental Protection prior to finalization.”

Leo Drozdoff, head of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the state’s representative on DOE’s waste acceptance review panel, said federal counterparts have been vague in their answers in hours of teleconferences.

“What’s clear is it would be an increase in (radioactive) threshold. We have a system in place that’s working reasonably well and we would like to know why that needs to be changed,” he said.

Drozdoff said the state prefers previous guidelines that gave Nevada more leverage to assess radioactive waste on a case-by-case basis.

Now, he said, the review panel can only make exceptions for receiving waste based on higher radioactive thresholds.

Drozdoff said the DOE’s reasoning for the new guidelines focused on the safety of workers who would be transporting steel drums and boxes — some with lead shielding — that contain more potent low-level radioactive waste. But exactly what items will be in those containers is unclear, he said.

A source familiar with the matter said the waste acceptance revisions appear aimed at clearing the way for disposal of “pretty hot” material associated with plutonium batteries produced at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and that are used to generate power aboard NASA space capsules.

THE RETURN OF NIMBY

After arguments that the Yucca Mountain project would cement Nevada’s unwelcome reputation as the nation’s wasteland, this new development might resurrect a “not-in-my-backyard” fight.

On the waste acceptance rules, “I think we should raise an objection, yes,” said former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, who heads the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects, which advises the governor and Legislature.

“To all of a sudden open the door to these humongous quantities, we should raise hell,” said Bryan, a veteran of Yucca Mountain battles in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bryan said he was miffed because the new waste acceptance rules were signed the same day DOE held a closed-door meeting with state and local officials in North Las Vegas to ease concerns about the uranium-tainted waste, which would be transported from Oak Ridge.

“We never get straight answers from them,” Bryan said. “That’s been our history of dealings with DOE. They never mentioned this expansion until the 29th (of May); that’s not dealing upfront.”

Bryan said he is concerned about the precedent set by the rule changes.

“Once they get that nuclear nose under the tent, then it’s ‘Katie bar the door.’ It opens a floodgate of other issues,” Bryan said.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., echoed the concern.

“I have reviewed the changes and am concerned that they, along with the storage of uranium-233 from Oak Ridge, signal potentially troublesome shifts in the low-level waste storage policy at the test site,” Titus said. “I have reached out to both the DOE and state officials for clarification about how and why these revisions came about.”

Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., also expressed concerns, saying, “There are many unanswered questions, and I cannot support a project that will not guarantee the safety of Nevada residents.”

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said he shares Sandoval’s concern “about any effort to reclassify radioactive material for the Department of Energy’s convenience.”

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who initially dismissed concerns about burying uranium-tainted waste at Area 5, now is challenging DOE.

“I am concerned about recent developments,” Reid said in a statement Thursday. “Nevada must receive assurances that the canisters are safe to ship, will not release dangerous levels of radiation into the environment, and waste acceptance standards for NNSS are not being modified solely to accommodate this waste. With the information I have today, I will not support the transportation of these canisters.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at
krogers@reviewjournal. com or 702-383-0308. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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