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Using Yucca to study train crashes briefly discussed

WASHINGTON — Officials from a Pentagon agency toured the Yucca Mountain’s tunnels last month but do not intend to work at the Nevada site, a spokesman said March 2.

A small group from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency visited Yucca on Feb. 17, confirmed Daniel Gaffney, the agency’s spokesman. He described it as a one-time deal.

“(O)fficials did tour the facility, just as they tour many (Energy Department) facilities, but it was not with the intent to conduct work at the Yucca Mountain site,” Gaffney said.

The agency, based at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, is charged with developing strategies in response to threats from weapons of mass destruction.

It has conducted exercises on portions of the sprawling Nevada National Security Site adjacent to Yucca Mountain.

Gaffney said the tour was one of the agency’s periodic visits to underground facilities as it builds understanding of hard targets where deadly weapons might be produced and stored.

The defining feature of Yucca Mountain is the 5-mile exploratory tunnel and numerous alcoves the Energy Department carved during decades of study to determine whether the site could safely store high-level nuclear waste.

The site has been dormant since the program was terminated in 2010.

Nye County Planning Director Darrell Lacy said Friday one of the ideas was to use the $15 billion tunnel to test train crash scenarios.

“One of the three letter agencies has been doing a study for potential alternative uses, probably with the encouragement of Harry Reid,” Lacy said during the Pahrump Nuclear Waste and Environmental Advisory Committee meeting on Friday. “There was a Pentagon agency, DTRA – Defense Threat Reduction Agency- and was throwing a lot of stuff out on the test site, and was going to do some testing on train crashes in tunnels, thought that would be a perfect spot to do it.”

The site visit was initially reported by the trade publication IHS The Energy Daily.

It reported the tour was taken by six officials from the Consequence Management Division, which develops tactics to respond to worst-case scenarios of a nuclear, chemical or biological weapons attack.

Citing unnamed sources, Energy Daily reported the agency was searching for suitable tunnels to perform “catastrophe scenarios” that could include studying train derailment effects during a calamity.

“The agency has never had any plans to do anything” at Yucca Mountain, Gaffney said. “And no plans testing anything in the future.”

“Our guys like to look at as many underground facilities as they can, to gain a better understanding of their general nature, strengths, weaknesses, how things are constructed,” he said. The tour “was not investigative or preliminary into looking at anything.”

If there was something specific it was trying to learn from touring Yucca, it likely would be classified, he said.

Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter Feb. 25 to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz seeking details of interactions between the department and the agency.

They sought confirmation that “planning, operations or other activity” at the site have been discontinued.

Pro-Yucca lawmakers say Congress approved the Nevada site for nuclear waste disposal, and any other uses could threaten its ability to be licensed as a repository, and could possibly be illegal.

Lacy said crashing trains into the tunnel is “it would be potentially damaging it for future use.”

Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen, a proponent of restarting Yucca Mountain as a waste repository, called the train crash idea a “nonstarter.”

“They’re grasping at this point” said Schinhofen of Yucca’s opponents. “They want to show, ‘Look we’re trying to do something beneficial.’ You spent $15 billion in 30 years, how about we open a repository.”

But five years after the program was terminated, the visit by military representatives has focused new attention on what if any uses might be found for the site if not nuclear waste.

The Energy Department on March 2 declined to comment on the visit or discuss reports involving alternative uses of Yucca Mountain.

Pahrump Valley Times reporter Mick Akers and editor Arnold M. Knightly contributed to this report.

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