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More productive talks, no resolution on planned nuclear waste shipment

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Steve Marcus

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz leaves the press room after answering question from reporters about nuclear waste disposal during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013.

Updated Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013 | 3:21 p.m.

National Clean Energy Summit 6.0

Actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Gov. Brian Sandoval and the nation’s energy chief said they had a “positive” discussion today about a controversial shipment of nuclear waste planned for Southern Nevada.

But they reached no solution about what to do with the highly radioactive waste that would move from Tennessee to the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas.

Ernest Moniz, the secretary of the energy department, said the federal government is losing millions of dollars every month because Nevada is resisting the shipment.

Sandoval met Moniz in Las Vegas, where Moniz was in town for the National Clean Energy Summit at Mandalay Bay. The two agreed to talk more.

“We enjoyed another productive conversation today about the importance of the Nevada Nuclear Security Site and its mission to both the department and the State of Nevada,” Sandoval and Moniz said in a joint statement. “We discussed issues surrounding the U-233 shipments and the creation of a working group to strengthen communication on these issues.”

The still unresolved debate revolves around what the federal government can do under the law and what political influence Nevada officials can exert to alter the federal government’s decision.

“The state cannot stop it,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who opposes the waste shipment and attended a fundraiser at Mandalay Bay. “The DOE (Department of Energy) wants to have a good working relationship with the state. All we can do is have as much information about it as possible, protest things we don’t like, and try to get them to change it. But we cannot stop it.”

Titus also had a meeting with Moniz Tuesday at about 11:30, moments after he spoke with the media.

Titus said that Moniz addressed the shipment and assured her that “it’s nothing new, it’s nothing terrible, it’s nothing extreme.”

Meeting with the press prior to a meeting with Sandoval in Las Vegas today, Moniz sought to downplay the significance of the highly radioactive waste. He said Nevada already takes lots of waste and that the department has made “very unusual” special transportation and burial exceptions to assuage concerns from Nevada officials.

“Let’s get the scale right: it’s not like we take all of our waste to the Nevada site,” said Moniz, who is in Las Vegas for a National Clean Energy Summit at Mandalay Bay. “Less than 5 percent of our low-level waste from the DOE complex comes to the Nevada site.”

Sandoval and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., have earlier said they oppose the shipments, noting that the waste could pose transportation and security dangers to Nevadans.

The material would be transferred from Oak Ridge, Tenn., to the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas.

The nuclear waste originates from the Cold War era. Although the energy department classifies the waste as “low level,” state officials have been concerned that the waste is at least of a high enough grade to make a dirty bomb.

Noting that the jurisdiction for waste designations lie with the energy department, Moniz said it’s important to remember how much waste Nevada already takes.

“We have to keep all of this context, and that’s the discussion I look forward to,” he said before his meeting with Sandoval.

Nevada officials have warned that this type of waste is more radioactive than other low level waste Nevada has accepted in the past.

“I’ll tell you what my major concern is, that this becomes kind of a slippery slope or a nose under the tent, whatever you want to call it,” Titus said. “They are not getting Yucca Mountain so they are putting other kinds of waste at other places.”

The Department of Energy and the State of Nevada have been at odds over basic facts surrounding the proposed transfer of nuclear waste from Tennessee to Nevada.

The federal agency said in late July that they had “many memos” that state officials had signed allowing for the transfer of the waste.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s administration said last week that it has not been able to locate these memos.

“Please be advised that we have not located responsive documents at this time,” Gerald Gardner, Sandoval’s chief of staff, said in a letter replying to a request the Sun sent to the governor’s office under the state’s public records law.

The Sun had requested signed memos between the State of Nevada and the federal Department of Energy relating to the planned shipment of waste from Oak Ridge, Tenn., to the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas.

Not only has the governor’s office not located memos approving the transfer, the office has found no signed memos from any state-level agency that has had contact with the federal Department of Energy regarding transportation, disposal, security or anything else related to the nuclear waste, according to Gardner.

This dearth of material directly contradicts Moniz’s earlier testimony to lawmakers. During that testimony, Moniz told Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., about the existence of such signed memos.

“There were long discussions held, many memos signed on specifically this particular low-level waste movement,” Moniz said. “The department agreed to special activities for the disposal. The department agreed to do something unprecedented — to move this in secured transports.”

Moniz said Tuesday that both he and the Sandoval administration are correct and that they were addressing different memos.

“I would say we are both correct in the sense that I said there are memos, and there are: they are Department memos copied to the appropriate state agencies,” he said. “I believe the governor said there are no joint memos, and that is certainly correct. The process is that because the state does not actually have jurisdiction for judging the waste characteristics. The state does not actually write memos. But the department engages the state at every step of the way and then we summarize the meetings and copy these state officials.”

Moniz did not say whether the energy department would send the waste to Nevada over objections of Nevada’s elected officials.

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