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Radioactive waste to be shipped to Nevada site starting in 2014

Low-level radioactive waste

Steve Marcus

Containers, mostly filled with soil or debris from buildings, are shown in a low-level radiation waste cell in the Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Site of the Nevada National Security Site (N2S2), previously the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, on Feb. 1, 2011.

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 | 6:05 p.m.

Low-level radioactive waste

A worker walks by containers of mixed waste in the Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Site of the Nevada National Security Site (N2S2), previously the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas on Feb. 1, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Coming soon to Nevada: 403 canisters of nuclear waste.

Despite questions and opposition from Nevada’s governor and federal elected officials, the federal Energy Department said today in a press call that it would begin shipping 403 canisters of highly radioactive nuclear waste to Nevada for shallow burial about 65 miles north of Las Vegas at the Nevada National Security Site, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site.

Up to 100 shipments over the next few years will begin in early 2014 along undisclosed transportation routes between the canisters’ current home in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Nevada National Security Site.

“The Department of Energy has the authority to proceed on these shipments,” Kevin Knobloch, chief of staff with the Energy Department, said in response to a question about whether state or county governments have any veto authority to reject the shipments.

The announcement comes months after Nevada’s Gov. Brian Sandoval met with Energy Department Secretary Ernest Moniz and after state and federal officials convened a working group to discuss the issue further after it became apparent that Nevada officials had safety and transportation concerns with the disposal plans.

Energy Department staff who briefed the press Tuesday said they’re committed to public outreach and will hold public meetings on these developments at Cashman Center, 850 Las Vegas Blvd. North in Las Vegas, from 5-9 p.m. Wednesday and at the Nevada Treasure RV Resort, 301 W. Leslie St. in Pahrump, from 5-9 p.m. Thursday.

Those meetings are part of a strategy to “double down” on public outreach efforts, Knoblach said.

“We will work very closely with state and local authorities to make sure we’re listening to concerns, we’re answering questions, we’re sharing information,” he said.

Energy Department officials also sought to downplay a Sun story published Tuesday detailing emails exchanged between state and federal officials in which Nevada’s elected officials and state workers expressed numerous concerns about the plans.

Contrary to those emails, energy officials said Tuesday that “this is not about exploiting loopholes” to create a legal and regulatory framework that allows for the waste to be deposited in Nevada for permanent disposal via burial at the Nevada National Security Site’s Area 5.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the Sandoval administration said the governor’s position on the shipments is “unchanged” from when he announced opposition to the shipments earlier this year.

“That said, the U.S. Department of Energy retains the authority to dispose of low-level nuclear waste at the Nevada National Security Site, which is why the working group is so important to the state and other stakeholders,” spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said. “The state appreciates the Department of Energy keeping the lines of communication open through the working group in order to voice concerns, resolve disagreements and begin public outreach to answer questions."

Knoblach said later Tuesday evening in a press statement that while Nevada doesn’t have any veto authority to refuse the shipments of nuclear waste, the Energy Department may not begin shipping waste to Nevada in January.

“We are committed to working with the governor and his staff to provide the state of Nevada with the answers they need about these shipments,” he said in an emailed statement. “While the DOE will need to make some decisions in January, right now we are focused on resolving these issues."

Knoblach further said the Energy Department has gone “above and beyond what is required” in engaging state and local officials as well as the public in discussions about these shipments.

The lengthening timeline for disposal of this waste isn’t the first delay for this project.

The Energy Department has worked for more than a decade to first “downblend” the Uranium 235 and Uranium 233 nuclear waste currently at Oak Ridge. That process makes the radioactive isotopes more stable.

The canisters are safe and don’t represent a security risk for Nevadans, energy officials said.

“It would take highly sophisticated industrial processing to safely retrieve useable material for a nuclear weapon,” said Frank Marcinowski, an energy official on Tuesday’s press call. “Its current configuration is not desirable for use as a dirty bomb.”

Marcinowski said the Area 5 section of the Nevada National Security Site is an “ideal location” for this waste because it’s removed from the general public, has an arid climate with very little rainfall and sits on “government-controlled, restricted land guarded by a 24-hour security force.”

Beyond security, safety and transportation routing concerns, state officials and nuclear waste experts in Nevada have expressed concern that accepting such waste would inevitably lead to more waste coming to Nevada.

Former U.S. Sen. Dick Bryan, D-Nev., 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.

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