Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Wednesday dropped a hint that the Department of Energy might be in for a fight as it attempts to ship highly radioactive uranium waste for burial in Nevada.
“If the Department of Energy feels they can proceed without the support of Senator Reid and Governor (Brian) Sandoval, then good luck to them,” Reid’s spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said.
The statement came in reaction to the Energy Department announcement this week that it was prepared to move forward with transporting 403 canisters of a potent uranium mixture from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to the Nevada National Security Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
It also came minutes before the Energy Department was to hold a public meeting in Las Vegas to discuss its plans. Another meeting is set from 5 to 9 p.m. today in Pahrump.
Before the meeting at Cashman Center, which drew more than 60 local residents and 19 speakers, Energy Department spokeswoman Aoife McCarthy reacted to Reid’s stance, saying, “The reason we’re here today is because we need to have, and want to have, an open dialogue with the state of Nevada.”
McCarthy said that the Energy Department is not committed to a time frame for moving the waste, although “an optimal time” would be early next year. That is because, as one Energy Department official said, a truck has been loaded with the first shipment and certification of the transport package will expire in January.
Energy Department officials said Tuesday that Sandoval legally would not be able to veto the program, although they hoped to maintain good relations with Nevada.
Speakers at the meeting expressed concerns from the Energy Department’s logic in classifying the waste low-level to its reason for changing the security site’s criteria this summer for accepting it.
Anti-nuclear activist Jim Haber and environmentalist Jane Feldman challenged the “low-level” label for the waste.
Said Haber: “That’s what seems either dishonest or cavalier.”
Frank Marcinowski, the Energy Department’s deputy assistant secretary for environmental management, responded to the criticisms.
“It’s not high-level waste. It’s not spent nuclear fuel. It’s not transuranic waste, and it’s not byproduct material. Therefore it makes it low-level waste,” he said.
Most of the waste — 76 percent — is uranium-235, the same fissionable material used in some nuclear bombs tested during the Cold War at the Nevada Test Site.
The once-liquid waste from a 1960s reprocessing plant in upstate New York was solidified and baked inside steel canisters at the Oak Ridge lab, where it has been stored in a historic Manhattan Project building since the mid-1980s.
The canisters contain a ceramic mixture of three uranium isotopes: U-233, U-235 and U-232.
State officials began ramping up their questions to the department earlier this year after concerns were aired about the safety of burying the waste in a landfill at the Nevada site.
In a June 20 letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Sandoval charged the department was attempting to exploit a gap in its regulations to classify the waste as low level and permissible for the security site’s Area 5 landfill.
He said the waste, which includes deadly gamma-ray impurities that could be fashioned into a “dirty bomb,” is too dangerous and should be sent to the department’s New Mexico repository instead.
Sandoval spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner acknowledged Tuesday that the Energy Department “retains the authority to dispose of low-level nuclear waste at the Nevada National Security Site” but Sandoval’s opposition to burying it there hasn’t changed.
Reid was among the Nevada officials who had raised questions about the shipping and burial strategy. He said earlier Wednesday that he was taking a wait-and-see stance until he heard from Sandoval.
“Sandoval has done a good job on this; if he needs my help, he’ll let me know,” Reid said. “He’s on the ground, I’m not.”
Likewise, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said Wednesday he also wanted to speak with Sandoval and to gauge public reaction from the Energy Department meetings this week.
Orthman said Wednesday evening that Reid and Sandoval had not spoken since the DOE announcement.
But the Energy Department decision to move ahead while Nevada concerns remain unaddressed seemed to rub some Nevada officials the wrong way.
One speaker at the Las Vegas meeting said she doesn’t trust the government after many of her relatives in northern Arizona were exposed to fallout from above-ground nuclear tests and died of cancer.
“I don’t believe our government anymore. They just throw it down our throats and shove it up our behind,” said Maryalice Esparza, a 30-year North Las Vegas resident.