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DOE to media: U-233 shipments safe

<p>Dan Schinhofen</p>

Dan Schinhofen

A public hearing by the U.S. Department of Energy and the State of Nevada on the shipment of 403 canisters of radioactive uranium 233 waste from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Nevada Treasure RV Resort was prompted after concerns about the lack of information flowing to local officials, Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen said Tuesday.

The canisters were generated as part of a research program at the Nuclear Fuel Services plant in West Valley, N.Y. in 1968. The resulting uranium 233 was then transferred to Oak Ridge National Laboratory for storage and potential future use. It is now being shipped out of Tennessee as part of the Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project (CEUSP).

The material will be shipped from Oak Ridge, Tenn. to a traditional low-level nuclear waste disposal site at area five on the Nevada National Security Site. DOE officials wouldn’t disclose the route during a conference call with reporters Tuesday, but nuclear waste shipments from the east are typically sent west on Interstate 40 to Barstow, Calif., then north to Highway 127 to Shoshone, Calif., east on Highway 372 to Pahrump and north to the NNSS, avoiding the Las Vegas metropolitan area.

“We would preferably like to get started with the campaign early in the next calendar year. We anticipate that the time frame, the shipping campaign, will be about a year and a half to three years and there will be approximately 50 to 100 shipments made during that time frame,” Mark Whitney, the director of environmental management at Oak Ridge said.

Frank Marcinowski, DOE deputy assistant secretary for waste management, said the disposal site at area five is far removed from the general public, providing an ideal site for disposal. It’s a very arid climate, he said, the natural features complement the engineered design of the disposal cell. Steel and lead casks will house the material, which will be shipped protected by armed federal agents enroute.

“CEUSP in its current form is not weapons usable and it would take a highly industrialized process to extract material for a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Marcinowski said the material had originally been considered for medical isotopes, but when there was no demand, Congress transferred responsibility to the DOE for disposal. He said 135 canisters of high grade material have already been transferred, including 126 canisters sent to the NNSS for the device assembly facility.

Besides the 403 canisters another 537 canisters will have to be disposed of in the future, Whitney said that will likely be shipped between 2020 and 2024. He said there’s no place at Oak Ridge that can accept the material, but added they prefer on-site disposal of nuclear waste.

“We’ve done extensive analysis of the burial configuration of this waste. We are satisfied the configuration that has been chosen will be safe for the public health and environment and it’s an appropriate burial method. We ended up with multiple analyses that demonstrated that same fact,” Marcinowski said. “It’s going to be a little deeper than the waste we normally dispose of at the site.”

The material, which consists of about 76 percent uranium 235 and about 10 percent uranium 233, is classified as low-level nuclear waste by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he said.

Whitney added the DOE is not exploiting a loophole to ship the material to the NNSS. Marcinowski said they conducted analyses that demonstrated there will be no radioactive release from the site for at least 10,000 years.

Kevin Knobloch, DOE chief of staff, said the agency has the authority to proceed on shipping the material, when asked whether Nevada or Nye County had veto authority.

“We will work very closely with state and local authorities to make sure that we’re listening to concerns, we’re answering questions, we’re sharing information,” Knobloch said.

Whitney said the NNSS advisory committee was briefed on the plans in December 2012 and received regular monthly updates after that.

“DOE is committed to providing stakeholders as much unclassified information about CEUSP as possible,” Marcinowski said.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Muniz and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval met in August about the shipments and agreed to set up a working group, which met in October. The working group, which consists of DOE and state officials, agreed to meet quarterly in either Washington, D.C., or Nevada and stay in contact with monthly updates.

But Schinhofen said Nye County only received attention on the shipments after he called U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a hypocrite for allowing these nuclear shipments to take place only 40 feet deep while blocking the Yucca Mountain project.

“Since January of 2012 we have been writing to them asking for information. They have not talked to us until last April. It took well over a year, almost a year and a half for their gang to speak to us and then it was because Clark County had questions,” Schinhofen said. He added county officials weren’t briefed on half the information relayed to reporters during a Tuesday conference call.

“Our biggest problem is they seem to forget that area five is in Nye County, not Clark County. We look forward to working with them. We just wanted some questions addressed. Unfortunately, it’s taken this long. We may have held up their schedule. We want to be more forthcoming in working with them as the host county. Our first job is public health and safety and we want to make sure we can answer our constituents’ questions,” Schinhofen said.

He said the meeting Thursday night in Pahrump was at his insistence. A meeting is also being held from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. today at the Cashman Center, 850 N. Las Vegas Blvd. in Las Vegas.

“We know the waste is coming through Pahrump. We’re looking for the information to know it’s safe and second we’re looking at some sort of mitigation. Highway 160 from Highway 372 up to Highway 95 desperately needs upgrading,” Schinhofen said. He poked fun at the statement it was described as low-level nuclear waste, but there will be armed security.

“It has a half-life supposedly of 700 million years. The way they’re going to transport it is fine. They’ve done this for years and we’ve never said no to that. We don’t want to hurt area five at all, we want to continue that operation. Our concern was the 40 feet in the ground. Yucca Mountain is 1,000 feet above it, 1,000 feet below before it gets to the water table,” Schinhofen said. “This is serious material. Again we’re not saying no but at least give us some mitigation. Our biggest concern was they would not answer our questions.”

Schinhofen, who took over as the county commission liaison on nuclear waste following the defeat of Commissioner Gary Hollis in the November 2012 election, said there’s no assurance this won’t lead to more radioactive substances being shipped to the NNSS. He noted DOE officials told the press they can give Nevada this material no matter what the state says.