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Feds study feasibility of shipping radioactive waste through Las Vegas

Nuclear Waste Shipments

Thomas Herbert / AP

The first load of nuclear waste arrives Friday, March 26, 1999, at 4 a.m. to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site in Carlsbad, N.M., from Los Alamos National Labs. With festive fanfare, a scattering of protests and one arrest, the first load of plutonium-contaminated waste arrived at the nation’s first permanent nuclear dump — the eventual site for waste now stored in eastern Idaho.

Updated Tuesday, July 9, 2013 | 12:11 p.m.

Nuclear Waste Shipments

This undated image provided by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant shows a New Mexico Department of Public Safety Motor Transportation Police Division officer inspecting the TRUPACT-III as it enters the state. The U.S. Department of Energy says this new shipping container used for moving radioactive tools and clothing known as transuranic waste arrived safely in New Mexico this week from South Carolina. Launch slideshow »

Las Vegas drivers might not be the best in the world, but at least they don’t have to navigate next to nuclear waste trucks on the beltway and interstate.

At least not yet.

Federal officials are considering routing nuclear waste through downtown Las Vegas and along the 215 Beltway.

A federal analysis recently found “no meaningful differences in potential environmental effects” between moving radioactive waste along current routes that avoid major population centers and “unconstrained” routes that allow nuclear waste to use the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, the beltway and the Spaghetti Bowl.

Nevada officials have largely opposed changes that would allow tens of thousands of trucks full of radioactive materials to go through downtown Las Vegas to the Nevada National Security Site some 50 miles north of the city.

Don’t even think about it, they told the U.S. Department of Energy.

“If they use beltway routes, we're concerned about their impacts on the residential population, commercial properties, schools and hospitals,” said Bob Halstead, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects. “It's now become a major controversy between the state and the DOE.”

Halstead said that the DOE is projecting between 25,000 and 80,000 trucks carrying radioactive waste to the Nevada National Security Site during the next 10 years.

“If they weren’t constrained, they could be routed on the beltway through metropolitan Las Vegas,” he said.

Local governments are largely powerless to stop the shipments, but they’re crossing their fingers that the federal nuclear waste transportation plans will continue to prioritize avoidance of metropolitan Las Vegas.

The change would allow the federal government to save time but could also have security, safety and tourism consequences for the most densely populated areas of the Las Vegas valley.

The Department of Energy will release its rules this summer in a “Record of Decision.” Although state officials say the Department of Energy has said it won’t route shipments through downtown, they also question why the federal government would even study the issue. Halstead said he won’t be satisfied until he sees the federal government’s decision.

The state also is fighting the Department of Energy’s proposed shipment of more than 400 canisters of highly radioactive, bomb-grade material from Oak Ridge, Tenn., to the Nevada National Security Site, where thousands of shipments of low-level waste arrive each year. The site is markedly different than the scuttled plans to bury highly radioactive nuclear waste within Yucca Mountain, which is near the security site.

Both the transportation route and the shipment of the canisters represent a scenario in which Nevadans don’t want to cede too much leeway to the Department of Energy.

“Frankly the policy issue for Nevada is, ‘Look, if you accept this, then won’t you accept this?’” said former U.S. Sen. Dick Bryan, D-Nev., who has fought the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository project for decades. “In other words, it’s the slippery slope.”

It's not just local officials who are concerned. U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., is also sounding the alarms.

"Despite multiple requests, I have yet to receive a briefing on the transportation plan or any reasonable rationale for withholding this critical information," she said in a statement. "If members of Congress are being kept in the dark, who is overseeing the DOE's plans?

"My top priority is the safety of our residents and the millions of visitors who come to Las Vegas every year. I will continue to press the DOE for sufficient answers to my transportation concerns, and will remain in strict opposition to any proposal that threatens the safety of Southern Nevada and undermines our counterterrorism efforts. Any plan to transport waste through the heart of Las Vegas would be extremely risky and incredibly irresponsible. The stakes are too high to gamble on District One's safety."

The Energy Department has not changed anything yet. Trucks carrying low-level waste, a term that includes everything from contaminated gloves and mops to the canisters currently in Oak Ridge, still route around the beltway, Spaghetti Bowl and Hoover Dam.

But even without a proposed change, state and local officials wonder why federal officials are exploring the possibility of opening other transportation routes through Las Vegas.

“Knowing that the beltway is slightly left open, it’s a lot easier to get open than if the door is completely shut,” said Phil Klevorick, program manager for Clark County’s nuclear waste division. “Unless we’re forced to give in on something, we’re going to stick on our ground as to not use the beltway for any radioactive shipments.”

The Energy Department has spent the past few years crafting a new environmental impact statement for the Nevada National Security Site, a routine examination of Nevada’s decades-long practice of accepting low-level nuclear waste at the security site.

It was during this process that it studied the new, “unconstrained” transportation route that would direct the waste through the valley’s urban areas.

Although the Department of Energy says it will adhere to the current agreement to route waste around the beltway and the spaghetti bowl interchange, Nevada officials are still on edge.

That’s because the federal government hasn’t issued its final decision on transportation routes.

When the department does decide, the exact routes may be kept secret for national security reasons.

For now, the Department of Energy and state officials have been talking about how best to proceed with the canisters of waste that the department could transport from Oak Ridge.

The canisters are highly radioactive, requiring cranes to handle the waste and exposing workers in just one hour to radiation levels considered safe over the course of a year.

The Department of Energy concluded in 2011 that it would like to move the canisters, citing movement as an alternative to a costlier plan to “downblend” the uranium to reduce its radioactivity.

In late 2012, the department finalized its plans to move the canisters to Nevada.

After several meetings earlier this year, state and local officials remained gravely concerned about the shipments, sparking involvement from the Sandoval administration.

In a letter sent last month, Sandoval wrote that he is concerned about worker safety, shallow burial of the waste, and security and safety of its transportation.

State officials said the waste ought to go to Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, where workers bury the canisters deep salt caverns rather than follow the original plan to bury them in shallow trenches in the Nevada desert. Other possibilities include moving the waste to the department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina or letting it remain at the department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Department of Energy spokeswoman Aoife McCarthy said the department is “committed to the safety and security” of the canisters and the Nevada National Security Site.

Given the ongoing talks, neither state nor local governments plan to immediately take any further action beyond Sandoval’s letter.

"We want to make sure we can do what we said we need to do, which is to protect the citizens of the Las Vegas valley,” said Marta Adams, Chief Deputy Attorney General with the state Attorney General’s office. “There are a variety of remedies, one of which was exercised by our governor two weeks ago.”

The latest episode about safe, secure and unobtrusive transportation routes casts new characters in familiar roles.

In 2000, the city of Las Vegas issued a resolution declaring the city a “Nuclear Free Zone.”

In 2002, then-Mayor Oscar Goodman wrote to The New York Times opposing shipments of high-level nuclear waste moving through metropolitan Las Vegas.

Now, Mayor Carolyn Goodman continues to oppose such shipments, including the canisters originating from the Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project. The canisters would move from Tennessee to Nevada under the Department of Energy plan.

“The city has long fought the transport of nuclear waste through Las Vegas where it would come in close proximity to homes, schools and businesses, as well as the nearly 40 million tourists who visit the city each year,” said Jace Radke, spokesman for the city of Las Vegas.

Nevadans could soon receive an answer about both the transportation routes and the fate of the canisters in storage at Oak Ridge.

But state and local officials are unsure when the Department of Energy will act.

“I have been involved in this for 30 years since I was governor, and you never seem to get a straight answer,” Bryan said. “The history of dealing with the DOE in Nevada has been a very unsatisfactory one.”

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