Deal gives state greater say in nuclear waste disposal

WASHINGTON — Gov. Brian Sandoval and the federal government announced Tuesday they have reached an agreement giving Nevada a stronger voice over radioactive waste shipped into the state and buried in a landfill at the Nevada National Security Site.

The deal stems from the impasse over the disposal of 403 canisters of potent uranium-233 commingled with uranium-235, atom-splitting material containing byproducts that can be used to make a bomb. The standoff has stalled a cleanup at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where the material had been stored for decades in an aging warehouse.

Capping more than a year of talks triggered by growing public concern in Nevada, Sandoval and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz signed a six-page memorandum Monday spelling out a new relationship in dealing with radioactive material transported and disposed of in the Area 5 landfill of the security site.

Contrary to an early Las Vegas Review-Journal report, state officials emphasized the agreement does not finalize a path for the uranium waste still on hold at Oak Ridge. Those talks are ongoing and the waste remains in Tennessee, state and federal officials said.

Rather, as the government continues to clean up radio­active material from Cold War-era nuclear weapons factories and storage sites, the agreement promises further consultations with Nevada officials over potentially exotic waste forms that might stretch the definition of “low level” contaminated debris buried at the sprawling desert reservation 65 miles north of Las Vegas.

“This is an important step forward in ensuring continuity in collaboration between Nevada and the Department of Energy,” Sandoval said in a statement. “Today’s announcement solidifies the Nevada National Security Site Working Group and represents a milestone achievement in our commitment to candid and direct communication on these critical issues.”

The memorandum calls for the uranium shipments to travel in secret accompanied by high-level security and for the waste to be further isolated at burial to protect against theft or sabotage.

Nevada and the Energy Department waged a long war over disposing high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. But it was unusual for them to be at odds over operations at the Nevada National Security Site, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site, where the state long supported government-detonated atomic bomb tests and where the National Nuclear Security Administration still conducts nuclear weapons experiments.

Moniz in a statement said the agreement preserves a “productive relationship” between the state and the department.

“I am aware of what is taking place — this agreement was with Gov. Sandoval and Secretary Moniz — and am pleased it seems they were able to work something out,” Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement.

State officials had grown concerned that the proposed uranium waste shipments might open the door for other exotic forms of nuclear waste. The worries grew after the Energy Department in May 2013 appeared to broaden its “waste acceptance” guidelines for the types of material that might be buried at the site.

The Energy Department is retracting some of the changes to its waste acceptance criteria. It said it also identified two other waste streams once destined for Nevada that will be shipped to other landfills. Officials could provide no details on those forms of waste and their destinations.

Sandoval and Moniz also agreed that senior-level state and federal officials will to meet at least twice a year on waste issues and to discuss possible new missions at the 1,351-square-mile site.

They would be charged with reviewing proposed changes to the waste acceptance guidelines of what could be buried at the Area 5 landfill. The agreement also calls for an independent scientific body to review how the Energy Department classifies low-level waste for purposes of disposal.

For instance, while the Oak Ridge waste was classified as “low level,” it would be as much as 1,500 times more radioactive than contaminated debris usually buried at the Area 5 landfill. The waste canisters require heavy shielding and will need to be handled by remote-control cranes.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.

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