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Nevada Cites Concerns With Transport Of Hazardous Waste In Response To Draft Plan For Former Test Site

By Sean Whaley | 2:00 am December 4th, 2011

CARSON CITY – A draft environmental statement addressing the future of the former Nevada Test Site appears to be setting the stage for the transportation of mixed hazardous and low-level radioactive waste to the site through heavily populated areas of Las Vegas, the state response to the document says.

The response, filed by Nevada Attorney General’s office after consultation with multiple state agencies, including Gov. Brian Sandoval, the Agency for Nuclear Projects and the Department of Transportation, says the draft document appears to be abandoning a long-standing agreement to use highway routes that avoid urban Las Vegas for the shipping of low-level radioactive waste. The agreement was made between then-Gov. Kenny Guinn and then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.

The DOE has been using a portion of the site to bury low-level radioactive waste shipped to Nevada from other department sites from around the country for more than a decade.

Nevada officials also express concerns in their response that the discussion of groundwater contamination at what is now called the Nevada National Security Site is not adequate for assessing the loss of the resource due to underground nuclear testing at the site located about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The draft EIS also fails to identify any areas of the site that might be suitable for a return to public use, the state says in its 83-page response filed Friday with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Draft Site Wide Environmental Impact Statement, (SWEIS), presents a 10-year plan with three options: continuing uses as they are now occurring; reducing the uses of the property; and increasing activity at the site formerly used for both above- and below-ground nuclear tests.

Subsidence craters from underground nuclear testing at what is now called the Nevada National Security Site. / Photo: U.S. Government via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday was the deadline to comment on the plan. A final report is expected to be issued by the DOE next year.

Joe Strolin, a consultant with the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, said in an interview Friday that a major emphasis from the state in its response is to get the DOE to move away from the use of the site for the disposal of hazardous and low-level radioactive waste.

Alternative energy development and even mineral extraction are potential uses of the site, he said. A new approach could greatly improve relations between the state and the DOE, Strolin said.

“If Yucca Mountain is off the table, it makes it a lot easier for elected officials – the governor, the attorney general, public officials – to approach these kinds of issues much more cooperatively,” he said.

The transportation issue is the major concern identified in the state response.

Under what is called the “unconstrained routing scenario” evaluated in the draft EIS, the Department of Energy is proposing to abdicate this agreement and allow shipments of low-level radioactive waste directly through the Interstate 15-U.S. Hwy. 95 interchange known as the Spaghetti Bowl, the state says. It would also allow the waste to be shipped over the new Hoover Dam bypass bridge and funnel waste into the Las Vegas metro area from the south.

The state “strongly opposes” shipments of waste through the urban Las Vegas area and the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, “and will aggressively contest any decision to undertake such shipments using all means available,” the response says.

Sandoval has also sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu objecting to this change to the 12-year-old agreement.

Strolin said an accident involving low-level radioactive waste, while remote, could cause both economic and public safety consequences for Southern Nevada.

“Even the perception of a radiological incident in that area could cause major problems for everyone,” he said. “That was the motivation in 1999 for moving the waste out of the Las Vegas valley.”

The reason for the proposed change is likely to save money, but the state has never received a clear answer to the question, he said.

Groundwater contamination, and the loss of this resource to the state, is the other major concern expressed in Nevada’s response to the draft EIS. The document does not fully assess the cumulative loss of groundwater due to the testing, the response says.

“Nor does the information contained in the draft EIS provide an adequate basis for evaluating the value of that resource which has been – and will continue to be – lost to present and future generations as a result of past, present and future contamination,” the state says.

The state response notes that the 2011 Legislature passed a resolution asking the attorney general’s office and state agencies to report to lawmakers in 2013 on whether Nevada could potentially receive financial compensation from the federal government for the environmental contamination, including groundwater contamination, at the site.

The EIS needs to provide, “a full and complete picture of the groundwater resource that has been removed from the public domain and rendered unavailable for beneficial use, the level and distribution of contamination of that resource, and the potential, if any, for future beneficial uses of the resource,” the state response says.

Strolin said the state would like to see more research on the issue as part of the final environmental report.

“So we had hoped that the EIS would do a better job of helping us to scope that out and it appears that it did not,” he said.

The groundwater issue is also a major concern of Nye County officials. Gary Hollis, chairman of the Nye County Commission, testified at a September public hearing on the document, saying efforts to tap into the uncontaminated groundwater on the site have consistently been opposed by the DOE. He said there should be some consideration of compensation for the loss of the resource due to the nuclear testing and other uses of the property.

“Not allowing Nye County access to water on the Nevada National Security Site is a big deal to us,” he said at the hearing. “The ongoing impacts of denying access to the county is huge, and no compensation has been made for our loss of the access to that water.”

The state response also says the draft EIS should address the potential for the freeing up of areas of the 1,375-square-mile secured site that are not needed for national security or other purposes.

“The final EIS should contain a section dealing specifically with the potential relinquishment of any areas of NNSS that are potentially reasonable candidates for return to the public domain,” the state says in its response.

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Audio clips:

Joe Strolin with the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, says an incident in urban Las Vegas could cause major economic and public health problems:

120211Strolin1 :13 Las Vegas valley.”

Strolin says the state would like additional research and analysis in a variety of areas:

120211Strolin2 :20 will address them.”

Strolin says Nevada would like to see the DOE move away from the waste disposal mission:

120211Strolin3 :33 development out there.”

Strolin says with Yucca Mountain off the table, cooperation with the DOE will be much easier for Nevada officials:

120211Strolin4 :16 much more cooperatively.”