Las Vegas Sun

January 17, 2018

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Show me the memo: Fight between state, federal officials over nuclear waste continues

State and federal officials appear at odds over some basic facts surrounding a proposed shipment of controversial nuclear waste from Tennessee to Nevada.

The federal Department of Energy said in late July that state and federal officials signed “many memos” agreeing to take the waste, which Nevada officials have said could pose transportation and storage dangers to Nevadans living in Clark County.

Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office said today that state officials have not found any such signed memos after spending more than a week searching for them.

“Please be advised that we have not located responsive documents at this time,” Gerald Gardner, Sandoval’s chief of staff, said in a letter replying to a request the Sun sent to the governor’s office under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The Sun had requested signed memos between the State of Nevada and the federal Department of Energy relating to the planned shipment of waste from Oak Ridge, Tenn., to the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas.

The response to the information further clarifies earlier comments from the governor’s communications director, Mac Bybee.

Bybee told journalist Jon Ralston earlier this week that “the state of Nevada is not aware of any signed memos between the state and DOE regarding the approval of the material in question."

Not only has the governor’s office not located memos approving the transfer, the office has found no signed memos from any state-level agency that has had contact with the federal Department of Energy regarding transportation, disposal, security or anything else related to the nuclear waste.

This dearth of material directly contradicts testimony from Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who told Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., about the signed memos during a July 30 Senate hearing in Washington, D.C.

“There were long discussions held, many memos signed on specifically this particular low-level waste movement,” Moniz said. “The department agreed to special activities for the disposal. The department agreed to do something unprecedented — to move this in secured transports.”

Furthermore, state and federal officials seem to disagree about other basic facts surrounding the planned shipment.

Moniz told Heller in his July 30 testimony that he believed Nevada officials plan to travel to Oak Ridge to observe the nuclear materials that would be shipped to Nevada.

The governor’s office said it is unaware of any plans for such a visit.

“Currently, no state representatives are scheduled to go to Oak Ridge,” Bybee said in an Aug. 2 email.

Given the confusion, Heller sent an open letter to Moniz on Thursday asking for clarification on a number of points, including the existence of the memos.

“During your testimony last week, you seemed to indicate that DOE believed the state of Nevada had signed off on the proposed shipments to the NNSS (Nevada National Security Site),” Heller wrote. “If this is your department's belief, I would appreciate clarification from you on how this conclusion was reached.”

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., had earlier requested further clarification about this waste, which isn’t as dangerous as high-level nuclear waste but could nonetheless be used to make a dirty bomb.

She echoed Moniz’s testimony that Nevada had signed off on receiving the materials during a televised telephone interview with KSNV News Channel 3.

“We want to be damn sure that this doesn’t happen again so that we’re on the front end of any decisionmaking, not trying to reopen it or not stop after the state’s already signed off on it,” Titus told KSNV News Channel 3 on July 31.

Sandoval’s office, however, maintained that the state has not signed off on receiving the waste and has still not located any signed memos.

“We are continuing to review documents and will update you if responsive documents are located,” Gardner said in a letter to the Sun.

These confusions are just the latest chapter in a series of concerns that Nevada officials have expressed about the Nevada National Security Site, including the possibility that more potent waste could come to the site on a long-term basis and the that waste could travel on trucks or rail through the heart of Las Vegas.

Nevadans could receive some answers Aug. 13, when Moniz will be in town for a clean energy summit.

Moniz and Sandoval plan to meet that day somewhere in Las Vegas to discuss these issues.

The Department of Energy has not returned two requests from the Sun for comment about the memos.

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