Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2019
By Kelly Lundeen
In early July, the US Department of Energy astonished Nevada when it divulged that for six years it had been sending mixed-level radioactive waste labeled as low-level to the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site). Nine shipments of 32 containers each were transported without proper labeling and stored at the Site without adhering to the minimal legal requirements for protective handling. The Nevada National Security Site has been designated as a permanent disposal site for low-level radioactive waste, for example rags, construction debris and other materials exposed to radioactivity as well as mixed-level radioactive waste like radioactive garbage and sludge, as long as it is in compliance with the security site’s waste acceptance criteria. The waste received was out of compliance.
This follows the recent revelation that the DOE secretly sent weapons-grade plutonium to the site last year without informing government entities or tribes. Leaders of 13 tribes and the governors of Nevada and New Mexico have publicly shown opposition to these shipments. In a letter to DOE Secretary Perry tribal chair of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, Chris Spotted Eagle wrote, “As a Southern Nevada tribe, our reservations—one in downtown Las Vegas and another in the northwestern part of the Las Vegas Valley—are in direct proximity to the transportation routes that may have been utilized for this shipment to the Nevada National Security Site.”
A coalition of nine southwest grass roots organizations including Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, Uranium Watch, the Utah Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and others is now putting pressure on Utah governor Gary Herbert to take a lesson from tribal and Nevada and New Mexico state leaders to express concern over radioactive shipments. Nestled between the three proposed radioactive waste sites of Yucca Mountain, Holtec in New Mexico and WCS/ISP in Texas, Utah would be along a transportation route for most of the nation’s 70,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste to reach any of these destinations if one of them is ever chosen as a storage site.
In a letter to Governor Herbert, the organizations asked that he, “(1) object to the use of Utah roads and rails to ship mischaracterized radioactive wastes that are not legal to store or dispose of at facilities in Nevada or elsewhere, and (2) oppose consolidated interim storage of [radioactive] spent nuclear fuel in Utah and in any State that objects to such a facility.” Utah residents can ask the governor to speak out at www.healutah.org/actionalert/. In essence, they would like the governor to ask the DOE to follow the law.
Following the six years of mishandling mixed-level radioactive waste, the DOE said it would temporarily halt shipments and launch an internal investigation. At the heart of the issue is the credibility of the Department of Energy. In the case of the 2018 plutonium shipment, there was an enormous quantity of highly radioactive plutonium knowingly sent across at least seven states without alerting residents or first responders along transportation routes.
On March 20 this year, US Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada announced that DOE Secretary Rick Perry had “promised to give her a firm time line as to when the weapons-grade plutonium that was secretly shipped into Nevada last year will leave the state,” according to the Las Vegas Review Journal. However in August a three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals not only denied the state’s request to remove the plutonium, but also dismissed the appeal for a ban on new shipments of highly radioactive plutonium. The Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford will seek a new court order for its removal.