Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 | 2 a.m.
For the past three years, the Energy Department has relentlessly pursued an effort to bury 403 canisters of highly radioactive nuclear waste in Nevada, over the objections of state officials, scientists and even its own regulations, according to more than 500 pages of internal emails, memos and correspondence obtained by the Sun.
The documents show the Energy Department worked to exploit legal loopholes, deflect public concerns over safety and rapidly try to assuage state officials once the ball had already been set rolling on transporting the waste to the Nevada National Security Site from Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The 403 canisters contain Uranium-233, a highly radioactive isotope that could be used to fuel a nuclear explosion and is generally more dangerous than the low-level waste typically accepted by the security site.
In an example of the DOE’s continued push to manage public perception of the project, officials pre-wrote a statement characterizing a long-awaited meeting between Gov. Brian Sandoval and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz as “productive” a day before the sit-down even occurred.
Belying the cordiality of the pre-written joint statement, however, was a simmering frustration born of the DOE’s handling of the project, which Nevada officials characterize as “cavalier.”
Sandoval’s briefing memo for that Aug. 13 meeting, obtained by the Sun as part of a public records request, was anything but cordial.
“Why is U-233 appropriate for shallow burial at NNSS?” read one of the questions in a memo to brief Sandoval of the issue. “DOE’s answer to date — ‘because we can’ — is unacceptable.”
Indeed, state officials had been left fighting a losing game against a project they had no way to stop against a federal agency adept at using the rules against them. The government, for instance, was prepared to begin shipments of the material even before an analysis of the long-term safety of the disposal had been completed.
The state was at even more of a disadvantage because it had no formal policy in place for dealing with such a significant departure from the typical kind of low-level radioactive waste shipped to the security site for storage.
The Nevada National Security Site, about 65 miles north of Las Vegas, was once known as the Nevada Test Site. Beginning in 1951, the site was used by the federal government to test the detonation of nuclear weapons. Today, additional nuclear studies not involving explosions are conducted there and low-level nuclear waste is stored on site.
The NNSS doesn’t have a role in the fate of Yucca Mountain, which is the federal government’s designated site for the long-term storage of highly radioactive waste. The Yucca Mountain project remains derailed because of opposition from President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
After Sandoval and Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., began stridently objecting to the shipments, DOE officials finally agreed to slow their efforts and seek public input on the U-233 shipments from Oak Ridge.
State and federal officials, in the wake of Sandoval’s objections, created a working group to resolve issues involving the project.
“There has been no new date set (to begin shipments),” said Leo Drozdoff, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “To my knowledge, the DOE does not have any plans to ship it immediately. But it’s still fair to say that is their desire to do so.”
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Before the creation of the working group, the state was literally at the mercy of a department that had clearly already decided how it wanted to dispose of the waste that has been sitting in a warehouse at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory since the 1980s.
According to the emails from the DOE, federal officials have nowhere else to put the waste unless they spend $600 million to extract, dissolve and downblend the radioactive material to a less concentrated form.
Instead, federal officials focused on the bury-in-Nevada solution and counted on maneuvering through the process to make it happen.
“They know what the rules are; they are good at it,” Drozdoff said. “They know the rules better than we do.”
The Nevada National Security Site already accepts low-level waste from the Energy Department. That waste is typically contaminated debris, protective gear, tools and other trash from past nuclear research conducted by the federal government under the Manhattan Project.
The site, in the past, has also accepted waste similar to the Oak Ridge canisters, including material that is just as radioactive as the U-233.
But the material containing U-233, referred to in documents as the Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project waste, did not fit the established rules for shallow burial in Nevada because it is more radioactive and contains too much fissile material.
As state officials quickly learned, under DOE regulations there are rules to get around the rules. The federal government simply had to conduct a series of safety studies to prove its plan would be safe.
According to the documents, however, that didn’t mean the DOE had to wait until the studies were completed before green-lighting the project.
Approval to begin shipments was given more than a month before the final analysis on the long-term storage of the waste was completed.
Nevada officials, citing specific studies, repeatedly complained that the material may not be safe for transport and shallow burial.
“In 1988, Oak Ridge scientists considered these U-233 materials unsuitable for shallow land burial,” Drozdoff wrote in an October 2012 email. “However, DOE’s current position is that the materials can now be disposed of at the NNSS in shallow land burial. (We are) seeking an answer to what has changed since 1988.”
The DOE’s answer: Other safeguards have been developed to make adoption of that 1988 standard unnecessary.
But what about the highly radioactive nature of the material, state officials asked?
It may be radioactive, the DOE answered, but it is in ceramic form, highly stable and not soluble in water. And the staff at the Nevada National Security Site is well-trained and experienced in dealing with such waste, officials said.
But what of the danger of terrorists, foreign nationals or others trying to get their hands on the waste while it’s being transported, state officials wanted to know.
The DOE’s answer, in short, was: Don’t worry; it’s so radioactive that even terrorists would have a dangerous time obtaining it. And the difficulty of extracting the radioactive isotopes from the containers is so great that it doesn’t pose much of a security threat.
“Since it is highly radioactive, workers (or terrorists) engaged in the removal and processing of this material would be subject to high radiation doses,” DOE officials wrote in an email to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office.
“Importantly, these same characteristics (i.e., difficult to handle and process and high radioactivity) make the CEUSP material less attractive as a potential theft or diversion target (and thus safer to transport and dispose from a security perspective.)"
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The project to transport the waste began in late 2011, with the DOE going through its typical process that includes a study of the material, a detailed profile of the waste and a review by a board of citizen stakeholders.
Federal officials knew it had to be done carefully. At stake was a $600 million price tag for handling the waste differently.
The first meeting of the Nevada Site Specific Advisory Board — the panel of Nevada stakeholders created by the DOE — didn’t go well, with members expressing worry about the transportation and whether shallow burial was appropriate.
“After learning what I have about U-233, I certainly do not believe this waste is low-risk and disposal of this substance at Area 5 should require further investigation,” board member Michael Moore said.
State and federal officials spent the next year further investigating whether the disposal was safe, and the board eventually recommended approval if the DOE met certain conditions on safety studies, a transportation plan and working with local governments.
But a key moment occurred in December before any of those conditions were met. Federal officials were ready to officially give Oak Ridge the go-ahead on the shipment.
At 11:29 a.m. Dec. 4, DOE official Scott Wade sent Drozdoff a draft of a letter summarizing the actions the DOE would take in answer to the state’s concern. They included burying the waste 2 feet deeper than planned and conducting a further special analysis of whether the disposal method was safe.
Although the state had no official authority to approve or disapprove the transfer, Drozdoff was kept in the loop and Wade wanted his review of the letter. The DOE also sent the draft letter to other lower-level state employees for review.
That morning, a staff member at the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection reviewed the draft letter and shot off an email to the DOE in response.
“Thank you… No concerns on our end,” the division’s chief of environmental programs Tim Murphy wrote. “This covers all of the discussion points we had relative to this waste stream.”
Six hours later, having received no response from Drozdoff, the DOE formally signed the draft letter.
Drozdoff said Murphy’s email was never meant to be an indication the state was signing off on the disposal. He was simply approving the language of the letter.
But on Dec. 6, after a meeting of state and federal officials on Dec. 5 in which the state was described as withdrawing its objections, the DOE penned a letter to Oak Ridge officials approving the shipments.
The move shocked Drozdoff, who was not at that meeting, particularly because the analysis of whether the waste was safe for shallow burial hadn’t been completed yet, nor an agreement struck on how and where the waste would be transported or the overall policy of how the site would be used in the future.
“Flummoxed is a good word,” Drozdoff said. “Look, there’s no question we were making progress, but we still had the special analysis to get through, then the transportation policy questions.”
The Energy Department declined to comment on the record for this story. But a spokesperson pointed out that two previous special analyses had been completed in 2012 and that the third analysis in January was “far more comprehensive than is the expected norm.”
But in the months that followed, state and local officials clashed with the DOE largely over how to transport the waste safely. They also worried that accepting the U-233 canisters would set a precedent for accepting more dangerous waste in the future as the DOE re-evaluates its overall policies for dealing with nuclear waste disposal and how Nevada’s national security site fits into that plan.
Meetings for DOE officials to brief Sandoval and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto were canceled, creating further ill will.
In June, Sandoval finally wrote a letter to Moniz expressing his adamant opposition to the waste shipment.
Now it was the DOE officials' turn to feel flummoxed.
“Leo — this is quite a different letter than had (been) described to me earlier this week,” DOE official Frank Marcinowski wrote to Drozdoff on June 21. “I’d like to discuss today what this means for future disposal of any waste at NNSS and our working relationship.”
Sandoval’s letter eventually led to the Aug. 13 meeting between with Moniz. According to the internal emails obtained by the Sun, the day before the meeting, deputy energy secretary Brad Crowell sent the joint statement describing the conversation to Sandoval’s general counsel, Michon Martin.
“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,” the statement read.
A DOE spokeswoman said the statement was written ahead of time because Crowell was jetting off to Brazil immediately after the meeting between Sandoval and Moniz. She said the statement could have been reworked had the meeting not turned out as planned.
Indeed, state officials said the meeting went quite well, resulting in the working group that has been established to oversee both the U-233 canister shipment and the overall future of the waste accepted at the national security site.
And in an unprecedented move, the DOE is holding two meetings this week to answer questions about the shipments from the media and the public.
State officials expect the relationship between the state and the Energy Department will continue to improve. They point to Moniz’s experience as a nuclear physicist who has a deep understanding of nuclear power and waste, as well as the willingness of the DOE to hold the public meetings.
But they aren’t yet convinced that the DOE has adequately addressed all of the concerns regarding the waste. Bob Halstead, Nevada’s director of the Nuclear Projects Office posed six questions on the security and safety of the waste in an April email.
“Those questions are not answered in the discussions I have had so far,” Halstead said. “I’m hoping they are going to be answered at these (public) meetings. If they’re not, I intend to pursue them because I think they are ones that really need to be resolved.”