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July 17, 2019

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US admits low-level radioactive waste was shipped to Nevada for years

Low-level radioactive waste

Steve Marcus

Containers are stacked 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 Wednesday, July 10, 2019 | 6:05 p.m.

RENO — A Nevada congressman called for U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry's resignation Wednesday after the department acknowledged dozens of shipments of low-level radioactive waste shipped to the Nevada National Security Site outside of Las Vegas may have been mislabeled and out of compliance with safety regulations for years.

The department announced earlier Wednesday it has suspended shipments of the waste from Tennessee to Nevada while it investigates whether the materials were "potentially mischaracterized" as the wrong category of low-level waste.

Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette also has ordered a department-wide assessment of its "procedures and practices for packaging and shipping all radioactive waste types," according to a memo the department made public Wednesday.

Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said none of the materials shipped to Nevada as early as 2013 from the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, posed any health or safety threats to workers or the general public.

But she acknowledged the shipments slated for disposal at the site about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas were not in compliance with the site's acceptance criteria.

The department's National Nuclear Security Administration has launched an internal investigation "to determine how this went undetected for a six-year period," Hynes said in a statement on Wednesday.

The low-level waste material is unrelated to weapons grade plutonium that the department secretly shipped to the same Nevada site last year from South Carolina and is currently at the center of a legal battle with the state of Nevada in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said in calling for Perry to "resign immediately" that the new disclosure is further evidence that Nevada has been covertly "coerced" into illegally receiving nuclear materials "through negligence or outright trickery."

Gov. Steve Sisolak disclosed earlier Wednesday that Brouillette telephoned him on July 3 to inform him that the department "has been shipping incorrectly labeled low-level waste" from Tennessee to Nevada.

Sisolak also released a letter he and Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen sent to Perry on July 5 expressing their concerns and demanding more details.

The Democratic governor said he was more fully briefed on the situation during both classified and unclassified meetings on Tuesday with senior department officials, including Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, head of DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration.

Sisolak said the waste shipped out of compliance with the department's criteria governing low-level waste disposal at the Nevada site included 32 total shipments that began in 2013 and ended last December. He said the department hasn't determined yet whether the material labeled as low-level waste may have included mixed low-level waste, which is regulated more stringently under state and federal guidelines and requires treatment prior to disposal.

Low-level waste can include such things as equipment or worker's clothing contaminated by exposure to radiation, while mixed low-level waste can include other things as well, such as toxic metals.

For example, Sisolak said the Energy Department entered into a settlement agreement with the state in May after DOE was cited for accepting low-level radioactive waste at the Nevada site that was subsequently found to be contaminated with chromium at a toxicity level higher than is allowed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — "thereby rendering it a mixed, low-level radioactive waste."

Hynes said Wednesday the department leadership first was notified on July 3 that certain shipments of waste managed by a contractor at the Y-12 facility in Tennessee and disposed of at the Nevada site were not in compliance with the site's waste acceptance criteria and "potentially mischaracterized as low-level waste rather than mixed low-level waste."

"The components that were shipped have been disposed of in a safe and secure manner at the NNSS, and as a precaution, planned future shipments of components from Y-12 have been temporarily suspended," she said.

Perry "is also directing an operational pause to reinforce safety training for all DOE personnel who have a role in the department's mission related to waste shipment certification," she said.