Las Vegas Sun

February 20, 2024


DOE slow to respond to Nevada lawmakers’ nuclear waste concerns

Strong words from a congresswoman, a U.S. senator and a governor might normally prompt quick action.

Not so from the federal Department of Energy.

Gov. Brian Sandoval has yet to receive a response to a June 20 letter he sent opposing a shipment of 403 canisters of highly radioactive nuclear waste from Oak Ridge, Tenn., to the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas.

In that letter, he had asked for a conversation with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Congresswoman Dina Titus, D-Nev., has sent repeated inquiries to the department without reply.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also joined Sandoval in opposing the shipments, sharing the governor’s concerns that the Energy Department had weakened regulations called “waste acceptance criteria,” or “WAC,” that would allow Nevada to take the highly radioactive waste.

“He felt the waste acceptance standards were modified solely to accommodate this waste to Nevada,” said Kristen Orthman, spokeswoman for Reid. “When the WAC revisions came out, it raised serious red flags with our office and the governor's office that caused pause and ultimately opposition.”

Reid had said during an April 16 meeting that "this is not a nuclear waste battle in my mind,” but the revisions in late May were a “game-changer,” Orthman said.

Meanwhile, Nevada’s other members of Congress and the Senate have taken a wait-and-see approach to what could essentially be a backdoor Yucca Mountain project that would move highly radioactive waste to Nevada.

Here’s what they’re saying:

• The office of Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., would not say whether he supports or opposes the shipments.

“Any transportation of waste to the security site should avoid densely populated, high-traffic areas at all costs,” said Greg Lemon, Heck’s spokesman. “If the waste materials do finally arrive at the (Nevada National Security Site), the security of that material is of utmost importance.”

• Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said the matter is concerning and he’s monitoring the situation to “ensure that we have access to all the information necessary to keep Nevadans safe."

• Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., is still recovering from recent heart surgery and is monitoring the issue, said Tim Hogan, Horsford’s spokesman.

• Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., declined to comment.

Unlike the other members of Nevada’s federal delegation, Titus has continuously complained about the dearth of information surrounding this planned shipment.

She took to the House floor last week to say that the Energy Department has failed to properly inform Congress about this project.

“I want to be clear: This is not the kind of low-level waste that the Nevada National Security Site has accepted for years,” Titus said on the House floor. “The DOE has refused to cooperate with repeated attempts to gather additional information so we can ensure appropriate oversight.

"It is unthinkable that the DOE is moving forward with this program without properly briefing Congress. If members of Congress are being kept in the dark, who is overseeing the DOE’s plans?”

A spokeswoman for Titus said her office has been seeking information from the Energy Department since April.

An Energy Department spokeswoman said the department has received letters from the Nevada delegation, including Sandoval and Titus, and “is currently reviewing their contents.”

"The Energy Department is committed to the safe and secure transport and disposal of nuclear waste material, including material disposed at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS),” said Lindsey Geisler, DOE spokesperson. “The Energy Department will continue to work with the state of Nevada to resolve these concerns.”

A source familiar with the issue said department officials are likely devising a plan to respond to Sandoval, Titus and Reid and, until they develop that plan, “this is at a standstill.”

The department has been planning to move the Oak Ridge waste since 2009, when the department decided it could save money by transporting about half of the Cold War-era waste to Nevada for burial in a landfill at Area 5 in the Nevada National Security Site.

Since that time, others have raised concerns about the shipments, which are slated to begin as early as this summer.

Last year, a former DOE official now working for a progressive think tank wrote that the 403 canisters that would move from Tennessee to Nevada are much more radioactive than anything the Nevada National Security Site currently accepts.

The canisters are so radioactive that they would require cranes to lift them, and workers without protective gear would receive an annual dose of radiation within an hour of exposure to the canisters.

The Nevada National Security Site already accepts low-level nuclear waste under its “Waste Acceptance Criteria” document, which outlines what types of radioactive waste the site will and will not take.

Before this year, the site didn’t accept waste that contained high levels of radioactive isotopes such as the uranium-233 and uranium-235 found in the Oak Ridge canisters.

“Disposal of uranium-233 bearing waste in a landfill would significantly violate the DOE’s safeguard and security requirements and Nevada National Nuclear Security Site Waste Acceptance Criteria,” wrote Robert Alvarez in a 2012 paper for the Institute For Policy Studies.

This May, the Energy Department changed the requirements. The change paves the way for these shipments to begin.

“Just weeks ago, I learned that the Department of Energy has reworked the Waste Acceptance Criteria for the Security Site to allow storage for materials that have radioactive concentrations more than 40 times higher than anything that has ever been brought to the site for disposal before,” Titus said on the House floor Wednesday.

Sandoval had said in his June 20 letter that the reclassification of such waste sets a “dangerous precedent.”

Former U.S. Sen. Dick Bryan, D-Nev., echoed the governor when he said allowing such waste into Nevada would be a “slippery slope” that could eventually lead to a Yucca Mountain situation in which the federal government would move high-level radioactive waste into the Nevada National Security Site.

Officials are equally concerned that trucks carrying these canisters and low-level nuclear waste could move through downtown Las Vegas, perhaps raising safety concerns for residents and tourists.

“The Las Vegas metro area is home to nearly 2 million residents and more than 40 million visitors annually,” Titus said. “Any plan to transport waste through the heart of the Las Vegas Valley would be extremely risky and incredibly irresponsible.”

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.

But officials are also worried about public perception and possible effects to the region’s tourism economy.

Echoing remarks on the House floor, Titus sent a second letter to the Energy Department on Wednesday with more questions.

She noted that the shipments could begin “any day now” and encouraged the Energy Department to respond “without delay.”

“I appreciate your timely response to these critical concerns,” she wrote in closing.

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