Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015 | 9:35 p.m.
BEATTY — The town sits in the shadow of nuclear history — 20 miles west of the Yucca Mountain repository and the former Nevada Test Site, home to hundreds of nuclear explosions in the last 65 years.
But when a perfect-storm disaster scenario blew through Beatty on Sunday, the 100 residents who gathered at the Beatty Community Center on Tuesday say Nye County officials failed to give them real-time updates and verification about the events, leaving many to wonder about the health and safety of their town.
“I heard stuff but couldn’t verify anything,” said Wendy Caskey, owner of the Happy Burro Chili and Beer restaurant in Beatty. “We need to get a plan.”
Early Sunday morning a fire ignited in a low-level nuclear storage site in the desert 10 miles from Beatty and 115 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The blaze followed flash flooding that shut down the town’s escape routes: U.S. 95 and Highway 373.
A plume of smoke billowed over the storage site and the rain continued to pound the hardscrabble landscape of the Mojave Desert. County officials and law enforcement were taking hundreds of phone calls, working to clear the roads and planning evacuations. They declared an emergency and received intel from the state and federal government. But officials didn’t rush to update the community.
“We are sorry,” said Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly.
Helicopters and other aircraft were flying 50 feet from the ground to test air quality for radiation. Support teams from the Nevada National Guard, state agencies and the federal government were also performing tests in the region throughout Sunday and Monday. While the federal and state governments say that there are no signs of high-level radiation polluting the air, residents want transparency going forward. Vance Payne, director of the Nye County Department of Emergency Management, apologized for the county’s public information response to what he called a "rapid-fire” event he never wants to repeat.
"You guys seeing all those choppers and not know what they were doing: That will never happen again,” he said.
The 80-acre storage site, run by waste Company US Ecology, is home to 22 low-level nuclear storage trenches that range in size from shallow holes to chasms hundreds of feet deep and wide as football fields. The federal government dumped the nuclear waste — equipment and clothing once subjected to government nuclear testing — from 1970 to 1992. The holes are covered with the dirt and rocks of the desert, and officials from the county and state have not concluded what started the fire.
Marty Campbell, a five-year Beatty resident, said he didn’t know that the company was a steward of nuclear waste.
“If it's done properly — somewhere else — it's fine,” he said. “But nobody wants it in their backyard.”
But Beatty, a sleepy town dotted with trailer homes, a casino and abandoned mines, has a long relationship with nuclear weapons, storage and testing. Many residents support a high-level nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain and others can recall the flashes and bangs at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s.
Chirlett Reed, a life-long Beatty resident, said she saw the mushroom clouds plume from the desert when she was 9 years old. The storm and fire, she said, wasn’t a big deal.
“I wasn’t very worried,” she said.