LAS VEGAS — Nevada's governor is telling the federal government the state doesn't want highly radioactive waste of the type that could be used to build a "dirty bomb" buried in a shallow pit at the former national nuclear proving ground north of Las Vegas.
The federal Energy Department is reviewing Gov. Brian Sandoval's letter opposing plans to ship about 400 canisters of waste from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to the Nevada National Security Site, agency spokeswoman Aoife McCarthy said Friday.
Sandoval, a Republican former federal judge and state attorney general, accused the Energy Department of trying to set a dangerous precedent by exploiting a regulatory loophole to classify the waste as a low-level hazard so that it can be buried at the former test site about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The governor said the material should be handled as high-level radioactive waste.
"This dangerous waste should be managed in the same manner as remote-handled transuranic waste," Sandoval said, noting that the Energy Department provides hands-free handling and permanent deep-geologic storage of similar material at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.
The governor also accused the Energy Department of failing to adequately address concerns of affected local governments and Indian tribes.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1982fbx) that Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, are backing Sandoval.
In a statement, Reid said Nevada needs assurance that the canisters are safe to ship and won't release dangerous radiation into the environment, and that hazard standards weren't being modified to make the waste eligible for burial at the Nevada National Security Site.
"With the information I have today, I will not support the transportation of these canisters," Reid said.
Nevada and its federal elected officials have fought for more than 30 years to block federal plans to ship highly radioactive waste currently piling up at nuclear power plants around the country to Yucca Mountain, an ancient volcanic ridge adjacent to the nuclear test site some 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. That proposal has been mothballed.
The plan to bury radioactive material collected during a cleanup of the Oak Ridge facility, called the Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project, is separate from the Yucca project.
The Review-Journal reports the Oak Ridge material, originally in liquid form, was solidified and baked inside 2-foot-long canisters with cadmium compounds to prevent an atom-splitting nuclear reaction.
Even if the canisters meet a "legalistic definition" of low-level waste, Sandoval said in his letter, they aren't suitable for shallow land burial at the Nevada National Security Site.
The governor noted that the canisters contain a high concentration of isotope uranium 235 and uranium 233 that would be a danger to workers and a potential source of dirty bomb material.
Energy Department officials say it would be impossible to obtain and process the material it to the point it would pose a threat.
The department has largely self-regulating power at the vast secure Nevada National Security Site, but generally cooperates with surrounding Nye County and the state.