weather icon Partly Cloudy

Derailment stirs fears of bringing nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain

WASHINGTON — A federal investigation has been launched into the train derailment in Nevada on Wednesday, a routine probe but one expected to draw close attention in the state as a debate over nuclear waste transportation and storage at Yucca Mountain continues to roil Congress.

The Federal Railroad Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation that enforces rail safety regulations, has launched an investigation into the derailment.

There were no fatalities or severe injuries in the derailment near Elko, and though the train was carrying military munitions headed for the Hawthorne Army Depot, those items were not on the 22 train cars that plunged off the tracks in a sagebrush stretch of railroad along Interstate 80.

Hawthorne is an ammunition storage depot run by a private contractor in western Nevada.

“None of the cars involved in the derailment were carrying explosives,” a spokesman for the railroad authority said.

For now, the National Transportation Safety Board is not investigating. “We try to focus on high-impact events,” said Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the agency. Those high-impact events would include a train derailment where “people are affected by toxic release,” Knudson said.

A Union Pacific spokesman said no hazardous materials were involved in the derailment.

“There was ammunition on board the train, but none in the cars that derailed. The cause of the derailment is under investigation,” said Tim McMahan, a Union Pacific spokesman.

“When our preliminary investigation is completed we will follow standard procedure and turn the findings over to the Federal Railroad Administration,” McMahan said. “They will make a final determination and that can take up to a year.”

McMahan said both rail lines were back in operation Friday after the derailment.

Accident stirs up waste fears

The relatively routine federal investigation into the derailment comes against the political backdrop of a battle over nuclear waste storage in Southern Nevada at Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

A central objection leveled by Nevada against the Department of Energy’s application to build a repository at Yucca Mountain is dangers associated with bringing spent fuel rods and radioactive materials from power plants across the nation.

The Department of Energy prefers established rail routes for the transfer of materials, although no transportation plan has been officially proposed or finalized.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, said the day following the accident that the derailment was “another sobering reminder of the danger posed by shipping nuclear waste through Nevada communities.”

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., has argued for years that shipping nuclear waste to Nevada would take it through major population centers across the country, including her central Las Vegas district and near the Strip. She said the accident near Elko “is just another example of why it would be so dangerous to transport tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste to Nevada.”

As a ranking member, Titus has asked the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to monitor the Nevada derailment and reach out to federal agencies about their findings in subsequent events.

Congress is still wrestling with the 1987 decision to make Yucca Mountain the sole permanent repository to store nuclear waste. Three decades after that decision, Congress has failed to provide the funding to complete hearings on the Energy Department’s license.

The battle continues in this Congress, where the House has stripped all funding for licensing hearings and the Senate has yet to produce a spending bill of its own.

Differences in the House and Senate could tack another year onto the 30-year stalemate, which has left nuclear waste stockpiling at power plants and military sites in 39 states.

Shipping called safe

Advocates of nuclear waste storage in Nevada note that radioactive materials shipped to Nevada would be contained in casks made with multiple steel shells designed to withstand severe accidents. And a 2014 study by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that because of container design, “there is less than a 1 in a billion chance that radioactive material would be released in an accident.”

“Transportation of used nuclear fuel is one of the safest endeavors in the history of mankind, and I don’t say that lightly,” said Steve Nesbitt, director of nuclear policy and support for Duke Energy, in 2017.

Despite the insistence of safety of nuclear industry advocates, transportation of nuclear waste has been a political lightning rod in the debate over Yucca Mountain.

In Nevada, industry groups representing resorts, gaming and business interests, along with environmentalists and conservation advocates oppose transporting spent nuclear fuel through Las Vegas or along other routes to Yucca Mountain.

And the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, found concerns with the Department of Energy’s transportation plans for nuclear waste.

In an October 2015 report, the GAO wrote “the current transportation infrastructure, particularly for a mostly rail option of transportation — which is DOE’s preferred mode — may not be adequate without procuring new equipment and costly and time-consuming upgrades on the infrastructure.”

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Politics Videos
Former Nevada Senate leader Kelvin Atkinson sentenced to prison
Former Nevada Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson, who pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds, was sentenced to 27 months in prison on Thursday, July 18, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trumps Strength is also a Weakness - Video
One of Donald Trump’s greatest strengths — his ability to shape national narratives — is also a great weakness.
Tax the Rich Bus Tour makes a stop in Las Vegas - Video
The Tax the Rich Bus has stopped in Las Vegas as part of its summer tour. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno hosts BBQ - Video
Assembly Woman Daniele Monroe-Moreno hosts BBQ to bring the community together to hear about the candidates up for election and for people to gather and have fun.
Democrat Virtual Caucus - Video
Elizabeth Warren visits Las Vegas
Senator Elizabeth Warren made a campaign stop at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Tuesday July 2, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Aaron Ford Speaks About Bill AB431
AB431 is a bill sponsored by Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson to restore the right to vote for formerly incarcerated individuals. Attorney General Aaron Ford spoke at the AM&E Church in North Las Vegas about the bill, on Monday, July 1, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Right Take: Biden's Racially Questionable Comments
Joe Biden has uttered racially charged statements for years. Now that he’s the frontrunner for the Democrat presidential nomination, he may finally face prolonged scrutiny for them.
Christopher Rufo Discusses Homelessness In The USA - VIDEO
Christopher Rufo discusses homelessness in the United States and how politicians can work to improve conditions for those with drug addictions.
Clark County 2019 Election Results - Video
The 2019 Elections wrap up in Clark County including an upset in the Boulder City Mayor race.
Olivia Diaz talks about her win in Ward 3 - VIDEO
Las Vegas City Councilwoman-elect Olivia Diaz talks about her election win in Ward 3 and what lies ahead for her.
Greene discusses Read by 3 and Opportunity Scholarships - VIDEO
The Nevada Legislative Session is over and the results are mixed for Nevada students, according to Tom Greene, Senior regional legislative director, Excel in Ed in Action.
Bernie Sanders visits Las Vegas
Sen. Bernie Sanders made a stop at Roy W. Martin middle school on Thursday, during his campaign trail.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Las Vegas
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris castigated President Donald Trump’s merit-based immigration plan, saying it was “short-sighted” and overlooked the cultural significance of family, during a campaign stop in Las Vegas. “We cannot allow people to start parsing and pointing fingers and creating hierarchies among immigrants,” Harris told Asian Pacific Islander leaders at a Chinatown restaurant, one of two appearances she made Thursday.
The Right Take New Education Funding Plan - VIDEO
On Monday, Senate Education Committee chair Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, released a new education funding formula. For years, many Democrat politicians have criticized the current education funding formula, called the Nevada Plan. They claim it’s old and outdated. Their biggest beef is that it doesn’t allocate more money for students who are English Language Learners or live in poverty. The theory is that it’s harder to educate those students and so they need additional services, which costs additional money.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Nevada
California Senator Kamala Harris meets with One APIA Nevada, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies empowering Asian Pacific Islander Nevadans. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ben Carson talks housing (Audio only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Ben Carson visits the RJ (Full Audio Only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Nevada
After campaigning at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 16 in Henderson, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke with the Review-Journal.
Student serenades Mayor Carolyn Goodman at swearing in
Students from the school she founded, The Meadows School, serenaded Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman during a swearing in ceremony for her third and final term. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Al Gore Speaks At UNLV About Climate Change - Video
Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore talks to an audience at UNLV about the effects of Climate change and how to switch to renewable sources of energy.
Forum on Wages and Working People Highlights - VIDEO
Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, and John Hickenlooper speak in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Nevada Politics Today Valerie Weber - VIDEO
Valerie Weber sits down with Victor Joecks to discuss her policies and why she is running for Ward 2 of the Las Vegas City Council.
Senators unveil compromise to cut drug costs for seniors

Two senior senators unveiled compromise legislation Tuesday to reduce prescription drug costs for millions of Medicare recipients, while saving money for federal and state health care programs.

Touted by Trump, immigration operation nets 35 arrests

The immigration enforcement operation touted by President Donald Trump that targeted more than 2,000 people resulted in 35 arrests, officials said Tuesday.