WASHINGTON — The Department of Energy is preparing to ship containers of highly radioactive, bomb-usable nuclear material for burial in a landfill at the Nevada National Security Site, a plan being weighed by state officials but declared troubling by some outside experts.
Trucks containing contaminated debris now arrive almost daily at the Area 5 landfill, in the southeast segment of the sprawling test site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The disposal area is part of the government’s cleanup of Cold War laboratories and factories.
But the Department of Energy, the state and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., have for months discussed the fate of 403 welded steel canisters containing an unusual and highly potent waste stream.
The material is not as “hot” as the high-level spent nuclear fuel once destined for a planned repository at Yucca Mountain, on the southwest edge of the national security site. The Obama administration quashed that project, opting to explore a new course for nuclear waste disposal.
But the uranium, at 250 to 300 rem, is as much as 1,500 times more radioactive than the low-level waste usually buried in Nevada, officials said.
Biological damage caused by radiation is measured in rems. Exposure to 400 to 450 rem “over a very short period” is considered a lethal dose.
ORIGIN OF THE WASTE
The waste, from a research program called the Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project, has been stored for decades at the Oak Ridge laboratory, where parts of the nation’s first atomic bombs were developed.
It is the end-product of thorium nuclear fuel that was irradiated at the Indian Point 1 reactor in New York from 1962 to 1965 and reprocessed at the commercial plant in West Valley, N.Y., in 1968.
Oak Ridge officials cleaning up an Oak Ridge building that holds various forms of U-233 have said direct disposal in Nevada would help save $600 million in remediation costs over 10 years. The officials have not made public the cost of shipping and burying the material, nor have they said how many truck shipments would be required.
Nevada and federal officials have clashed in the past over nuclear matters, most famously during the state’s long campaign against Yucca Mountain.
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