Las Vegas Sun

July 17, 2019

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State releases memos detailing negotiations on pending nuclear waste shipment

Gov. Brian Sandoval's administration today released two documents detailing the state's negotiations with federal energy officials over the first-time shipment to Nevada of highly radioactive waste from Oak Ridge, Tenn. But state officials disagree with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz's assertion last month that the memos indicate the state's willingness to accept the canisters of nuclear material.

The Dec. 4 Energy Department letter released today details an agreement federal officials believe they had reached with state staff on additional precautions that would be taken for disposing of the waste at the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas. Nevada has long accepted low-level waste, but the radioactive material from Oak Ridge, Tenn., has been deemed more dangerous than what is typically stored in Nevada, prompting the state to ask for more stringent disposal methods.

"In meetings held on Nov. 28 and 29, 2012, between (state and federal officials), resolution was reached regarding questions and issues related to the proposed disposal of the Uranium-233 Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project waste stream from Oak Ridge National Laboratory," the letter states.

The memo clearly indicates that the Energy Department had begun preparations to ship the waste, apparently confident the state's concerns had been met. A handwritten note on the memo says, "State withdrew their opposition."

"The (National Security Site) approves the shipment and disposal of the above listed waste stream under the requirements of the (waste acceptance criteria)," reads the second memo, which instructs officials in Oak Ridge to call the Nevada site with a planned shipping date.

But in an interview with the Sun, Leo Drozdoff, the director of the state Conservation and Natural Resources Department, said the Energy Department had only resolved state concerns regarding the disposal of the waste. Issues regarding transportation and whether acceptance of the waste would create a precedent for accepting future radioactive waste had never been addressed.

Rather, meetings with local officials and the Energy Department went poorly and an April briefing with Sandoval and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto was canceled by the Energy Department, Drozdoff said.

"What we always said to DOE is we didn’t want to deal with the issue in pieces, we wanted to deal with it holistically," Drozdoff said. "As the disposal questions began to be answered, what we then wanted to pivot to was the remaining issues: transportation and the overriding policy question of what else may be out there."

Drozdoff said state officials purposely did not respond to the December letter, or the detailed safety precautions received in January, so the discussion with the Energy Department would continue.

After the breakdown of talks on transportation and the precedent-setting nature of receiving the waste, Sandoval wrote a letter officially opposing its delivery. But Moniz told a U.S. Senate committee last month that Nevada officials had agreed to the shipment and that "many memos" had been signed detailing the agreement.

Sandoval's office later denied existence of such signed memos in response to a records request from the Sun. The memos released today, while signed by Energy Department officials, are not signed by state representatives.

Technically, the state has no power to stop the shipment, but has historically worked with the Energy Department to determine conditions under which the waste would be transported and received.

Sandoval's spokesman Mac Bybee said the governor remains opposed to the waste shipment.

"The governor’s position is fairly clear," Bybee said. "But there's also the other side. State options are limited when it comes to stopping this. The governor doesn’t want to see this material come into the state, however, the process in place provides the state limited opportunity to protest it."

Sandoval met with Moniz on Tuesday to discuss the issue. The pair agreed a working group would be created to address the state's remaining concerns, and formalize a policy by which the state will review whether to accept such waste.

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