Ely Daily Times

Ely on route for Test Site nuclear dump

By KENT HARPER -- Ely Times Editor

Nuclear waste is being shipped through Ely now.

But this has nothing to do with Yucca Mountain or spent nuclear power plant fuel rods. And it's been going on for 25 years.

Low level nuclear waste, generated by weapons production and research at sites across the nation during the Cold War, is being transported by private companies to the Nevada Test Site, where it is buried in the already contaminated earth.

Frank Di Sanza, Division Director at the Nevada Operations Office for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), National Nuclear Security Administration, updated the White Pine County Commission this week on the program.

Di Sanza reminded the commissioners that the DOE doesn't set the rules for shipping the low-level, but hazardous wastes. That's all done by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Private carriers are used for the shipments and the carriers are responsible for selecting their routes to the Nevada Test Site.

But since 1995, those routes have been limited, Kevin Rohrer, program spokesman, told the Ely Times yesterday. Rohrer attended the commission meeting along with Di Sanza.

Rohrer said in 1995 the DOE began a major effort to include local governments in selecting routes for the shipments.

"We're trying to come up with alternative routes that will be acceptable..." Rohrer said, while acknowledging there are no routes that are acceptable to everyone.

For now, however, there are three routes approved by the state. There are two routes into the Nevada Test Site in Southern Nevada and one route in Northern Nevada.

There are waste sites in Southern California and Northern California and another in Idaho, but most of the 22 sites shipping waste to the Nevada Test Site are east of the Mississippi River, with a half dozen in Colorado, New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle.

From January through March of this year, 304 shipments of the low level waste came to Nevada -- only four of those shipments took the northern route - I-80 to U.S. 93, through Ely to U.S. 6 to U.S. 95 in Tonopah and then south to Mercury at the Test Site.

Those four shipments came from the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in New Jersey. The lab sent a total of 25 shipments to Nevada during the first quarter, but the other 21 loads came through the southern route.

Those routes use U.S. 40 through Kingman, Ariz., and Needles, Calif., before entering Nevada. The route passes through Searchlight before weaving back into California where it breaks into two separate routes at Nipton, Calif., on Interstate 15. One of those routes takes I-15 toward Las Vegas, but turns north at the junction with the highway to Pahrump and through that community to Mercury.

The other route continues west on I-15 from Nipton to Baker, where it turns north through Shoshone and back into Nevada at Amargosa Valley before turning off to Mercury.

Those routes satisfy the state's major worries about the population center in Las Vegas.

No shipments can ever travel across Hoover Dam. Nor can they pass through the "Spaghetti Bowl" interchange of I-15, U.S. 93 and U.S. 95 in downtown Las Vegas.

The DOE agreement with Nevada also includes "no intermodal" transfers within Nevada. "Intermodal" transfers are switching from truck to train, either moving cargo from one mode to the other, or sending truck trailers piggy back on rail cars.

Despite the existent routes, County Commissioner Kevin Kirkeby told the visiting DOE officials about his concerns if waste ever were shipped into Nevada along the U.S. 50 corridor.

He explained the effort to establish the National Heritage Route link between White Pine County and Millard County, Utah.

Waste shipments along U.S. 50 could jeopardize the tourism effort and worry visitors to Great Basin National Park.

Di Sanza also was grilled about the possibility on an accident on U.S. 6 near Murry Springs.

Di Sansa said the agency is aware of the tourism concerns, and the types of shipments traveling along U.S. 6 are usually solid pieces of metal that would take a long time to contaminate a water source in the event of an accident.

He was asked about the safety of the shipments.

He explained that in the last year, two drivers had reported seeing leaks from their containers (one in Wendover, the other in Arizona). The solid waste, itself, can't leak, but humidity can build up in the containers and leaked on those two occasions.

He said the DOE was pleased with the response of the drivers and local emergency management agencies.

That's a big part of the program, is helping communities along the routes to be prepared in case of leaks or accidents.

Under the DOE grant assistance program, White Pine County received $200,043 from the DOE last fiscal year.

The county is to receive $177,902 in grants this fall and, according to Rohrer, more before the end of the fiscal year, likely totalling more than last year's amount.

Di Sanza broke down the budget for the $177,902. The vast majority -- $107,525 -- is earmarked for equipment; training, supplies, travel, planning and salaries make up the remainder.

The equipment budget includes $45,000 for a 4X4 pickup truck, $21,375 for 45 pagers, $12,000 for four computers, $9,500 for personal protection equipment, $9,100 for a hospital base station, $5,100 for three cutter saws, $4,200 for more training equipment and $1,250 for five electronic dosimeter badges to detect radiation exposure.

The waste shipments will continue to be sent to Nevada as the DOE cleans up sites used for nuclear weapons development and research.

Rohrer said by 2010 most of that waste should have been sent to Nevada, although some labs will continue to generate it.

The shipments arrive in Mercury at the Nevada Test Site and then are taken to blast craters or other areas already contaminated by weapons testing. There they are buried.

But it's not a dumping ground. Everything is controlled and monitored, according to Rohrer.

"This is one of the best facilities of its kind in the world," he said.

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