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Colton Lochhead, a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is reporting that The U.S. Department of Energy may have mistakenly shipped “reactive” nuclear material that was incorrectly labeled as low-level radioactive waste into Nevada in dozens of shipments over the past six years.
According to Lochhead, 32 shipments started in 2013 and stopped in December 2018. They were supposed to send low-level radioactive waste[i] from the department’s Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to the Nevada National Security Site, roughly 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, for secure disposal.
On July 3, the Energy Department informed Nevada officials, that reactive material — that cannot be detonated, but can release large amounts of thermodynamic energy — may have been included in those shipments.
The Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration claims that the material does not pose safety and health of the general public or workers at the facility at NNSS. Nonetheless, “Such waste has never been approved for disposal at the NNSS,” the letter said.
The NNSA’s claim should be considered with caution. Uranium and plutonium, are heavy elements and are hazardous to both people and the environment. They are highly reactive elements and react with common substances such as air and water to produce an often violent reaction. Many of the reactions between these elements and water can be fatal if they are carried out on a large scale.
Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak learned of the error in a phone call with Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, who told the governor that the shipments had been incorrectly labeled and “may contain a reactive material,” according to the letter sent last week.
The governor, as well as Nevada Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, sent Energy Secretary Rick Perry a letter two days later spelling out their concerns. The also expressed frustration over the latest error, which comes on the heels of the department’s decision last year to ship a half-metric ton of weapons grade plutonium to the security site and not disclose it until months after the fact.
“These egregious acts — whether acts of negligence or indicative of something else — are unconscionable and have potentially put the health and safety of Nevadans and our environment at unacceptable risk,” the letter said.
The governor’s office said that the Energy Department has not yet confirmed that the shipments contained any reactive materials, which Sisolak’s office said, “would trigger additional safety concerns and run afoul of existing state permits and federal statutes governing the waste disposal mission at NNSS.”
Because it includes hazardous material, the mixed waste is supposed to be handled separately at a dedicated facility at the security site where it is processed. The mixed-level waste is buried in lined trenches as a precaution, whereas low-level waste is buried in unlined trenches.
[i] Low-level wastes, generally defined as radioactive wastes other than high-level and wastes from uranium recovery operations. Low-level waste includes items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation. This waste typically consists of contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipment and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues. The radioactivity can range from just above background levels found in nature to much higher levels in certain cases such as parts from inside the reactor vessel in a nuclear power plant.