Las Vegas Sun

July 25, 2014

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Sun editorial:

A federal fiasco

Energy Department’s arrogance on nuclear waste fails Nevada again

After getting caught in a disingenuous plan to send more than 400 large containers of highly radioactive waste to Nevada, Energy Department officials put on a dog-and-pony show last week to try to make nice.

The effort included two public meetings and a conference call with reporters, all designed to make it appear as if the federal government cares what Nevadans think.

Please.

It must take a special kind of arrogance to work at the Energy Department. Over the decades, Nevadans have seen scores of visits by federal officials who patronizingly tell us to trust them because that they know what’s best for us. Meanwhile, they have worked diligently against the state’s objections and best interests.

A story by Anjeanette Damon last week detailed the Energy Department’s latest caper: a relentless, arrogant push to send uranium-233 to the Nevada National Security Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, over the state’s objections.

Unlike the low-level waste normally buried in Nevada, such as contaminated gloves and clothing, U-233 is highly radioactive. Because of that and the level of fissile material in it, the U-233 wasn’t eligible for burial in Nevada under the Energy Department’s own regulations.

But never mind that. Federal rules allowed the Energy Department to disregard the regulations in this case if studies could show it would be safe.

So the department set out to study the safety of its plans. Not that it apparently mattered. Department officials gave the approval to ship the waste before those studies were done.

How is it that the Energy Department has found this to be a good way to operate? The answer can be found in a briefing paper done on the issue for Gov. Brian Sandoval, which said the Energy Department’s answer was “because we can.”

The department has created a significant amount of ill will in this situation. At one point, department officials said the state had withdrawn its opposition, which wasn’t the case. At other points, federal officials canceled meetings with state agencies to discuss safety issues.

Nevada has seen this kind of arrogance from the Energy Department before, most notably in the decades-long push to send 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste generated in nuclear reactors to Yucca Mountain, a volcanic ridge about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

In the course of that fight, the Energy Department changed the rules and criteria whenever it failed to meet them. That’s something that shouldn’t be missed in all of this: The department, which is supposed to base its decisions in science, has routinely started with an answer and then tried to prove it.

The department’s actions bring to mind something President Ronald Reagan was fond of saying: “The 10 most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

Well, Nevadans have had enough help from the Energy Department, and given its lack of credibility, it should back off its plans.

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