A year after fiery accident at radioactive waste dump in Nevada, the meter is running on a fix via Las Vegas Review Journal

When Nevada inherited the closed Beatty low-level nuclear waste dump in 1997, it accepted $9 million from the company that had operated it for decades to ensure that the waste — some of it tainted with deadly plutonium — would remain safely buried for a century.

A portion of the money went for its intended purpose — “staff inspection time, the contractor, maintenance and repair of the site,” said Joe Pollock, deputy administrator for the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health. But most was diverted to the state’s general fund over several legislative sessions and spent on other programs, he acknowledged in emails this week.

Now, a year after an underground fire at the dump triggered a series of violent eruptions that spewed hazardous debris 60 feet into the air, that “loan” is coming due.

And the bill to ensure there is no repeat of that frightening accident is expected to be much higher than $9 million.


“It was then that the largest explosion happened (and) we took cover,” Stoddard recalled in a statement included in a 305-page Nevada Department of Public Safety incident report.

Marchand used his cellphone from about 80 yards away to videotape the resulting spectacular-but-scary fireworks.

A bright orange-red fire erupted from a crater left behind by the big blast, emitting a plume of white smoke and “violently expelling” waste from the trench. A series of blasts hurled 11 radioactive waste drums from their graves, depositing two outside the fence that surrounds the dump 11 miles south of Beatty.

Authorities feared that pouring water onto the fire might cause more violent explosions, so they allowed it to burn into the night.

Concerns that the accident could have spread radioactive particles into the air prompted them to close a 140-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 95 — the state’s main north-south artery — for nearly 24 hours as they waited for the chemical fire to burn itself out. School was canceled in Beatty the next day.


State officials made no mention of the presence of an estimated 47 pounds of highly radioactive plutonium and uranium isotopes amid the 7 million cubic feet of waste dumped at the landfill from 1962 through 1992.

Plutonium is believed to have arrived in small amounts at the dump. It was legally disposed of as low-level radioactive waste, which typically consists of low-risk items such as medical waste, contaminated clothing and laboratory equipment but can include very highly radioactive items in certain cases, such as parts from inside the reactor vessel in a nuclear power plant, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

It’s unclear whether any of this special radioactive material was buried within Trench 14.

Nevada’s Radiation Control Program, which took custody of the dump’s license from US Ecology along with 88 boxes of records about what was dumped and where, and the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, which runs the program, declined to comment.


Most of the drums — 92 — came from a General Electric nuclear facility in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Twenty-two were from the Gulf-United nuclear facility in Elmsford, New York; and two were from the U.S. Bureau of Mines Research Center in Boulder City.

It’s not clear when the cracks in the cap occurred. State regulators had inspected the site April 13, 2015, just over six months before the accident. They noted that “previously reported cracks due to erosion and settling” had been repaired.

A report by the NRC’s Mandeville after his team’s visit in November speculates that “numerous smaller earthquakes with a magnitude range between 2 and 5” might have caused new cracks or widened ones that were already there.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s website bolsters that theory, showing that 21 earthquakes of magnitude 2.0 or greater and centered within a 35-mile radius of the Beatty dump occurred between the inspection and the accident.

The strongest, one of magnitude 3.4, occurred June 11, 2015. The second-strongest, of magnitude 2.4, occurred the day before the incident and was centered only 17 miles from the dump.

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