DOE's Environmental Management
at the Nevada Test Site

Background Paper
Prepared by

John B Walker

State of Nevada
September 1997







  • Governor's Correspondence
  • DOE Correspondence
  • Correspondence from State of Nevada - NWPO
  • Correspondence from State of Nevada - NDEP
  • State Comments - DOE 2006 Plan


The State of Nevada has developed a number of equity initiatives to respond to changing missions and federal responsibilities at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). These initiatives or "equity issues" were in part developed to address potential cumulative impacts between NTS operations and the Yucca Mountain Site Characterization Program. Yucca Mountain is contiguous to the NTS, located on the southwestern border of the NTS. State officials have identified several problem areas and emerging questions concerning the future mission activities at the NTS that have the potential for cumulative impact on the Yucca Mountain site characterization program. These unresolved problems include:

  • Management and accountability concerning the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) low-level radioactive waste program at NTS;

  • The impact of radioactive waste cleanup at other DOE Weapons Complex sites1 on waste disposal programs at NTS;

  • Cumulative risks associated with the potential transportation of thousands of shipments of both high-level and low-level radioactive waste through the Las Vegas Valley;

  • Questions concerning appropriate soil remediation levels, allowable land-uses and long-term institutional controls at the NTS and Yucca Mountain; and

  • The need to initiate health effects studies and monitoring programs to "baseline" the impact of past nuclear testing on exposed populations, as well as the need to reevaluate existing radiological monitoring programs in the region to address present and future radioactive waste disposal activities at NTS.

As mentioned above, State officials have developed a number of equity initiatives to address these problem areas and to respond to DOE's changing mission responsibilities at NTS. Development of these equity issues culminated with DOE's release of the Draft 2006 planning and budgeting process, (Accelerating Cleanup - Focus on 2006, Discussion Draft, June 1997). The actual formulation of these issues, however, were preceded by several years of tension between DOE and the State of Nevada. At one point, Nevada's Attorney General filed suit 2 to force DOE to comply with federal statutes requiring disclosure of environmental contamination at the NTS. The impact of the State's lawsuit resulted in the preparation of a Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the test site. The State's lawsuit was settled, and DOE is in the process of complying with the issues stipulated in the settlement agreement (See attachment: State/DOE Settlement Agreement).

To fully comprehend the circumstances surrounding the State's lawsuit and the development of the State's equity issues, clarification is needed about the NTS and its' evolving missions, including non-defense program activities conducted under DOE's Environmental Management Program (EM).


The Nevada Test Site (NTS) occupies over 1,300 square miles and is located 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. The NTS was the nation's proving ground for nuclear weapons testing. Between 1952 and 1992, DOE and its predecessor agencies detonated more than 900 nuclear devices at the site; 100 of these tests were conducted above ground with the remaining 800 detonated underground.

With the signing of the Compressive Test Band Treaty, nuclear testing at NTS was indefinitely suspended; the last underground test was conducted in September 1992. DOE still conducts "subcritical" tests at NTS, although these tests are considered innocuous compared to the volume of surface and subsurface soil and groundwater contamination generated by the full-scale testing program.

In reference to underground testing, just over 200 nuclear detonations were conducted at or within the vicinity of the groundwater beneath the NTS. According to DOE, underground testing left more than 300 million curies of radioactive contamination spread through millions of cubic meters of subsurface area. In terms of groundwater contamination, DOE has estimated that about 112 million curies remain under or within 100 meters of the water table itself.3 State officials believe that an estimated 300 square miles of groundwater is contaminated beneath the site. Understanding the movement of groundwater contamination at the NTS is a critical issue for the State when considering the cumulative "load" of radioactivity that would be added to the region if the Yucca Mountain project is approved.


One of the primary missions of the Environmental Management (EM) program at NTS is to gain a better understanding of how groundwater contamination can be characterized, modeled, and validated through onsite well monitoring. The eventual goal of the program is to achieve containment of the groundwater contamination through various management approaches. However, as pointed out in the State's comments on DOE's Draft 2006 plan, officials in Nevada are concerned that current budget constraints proposed in the 2006 Plan and their subsequent effect on NTS EM programming may limit DOE's ability to fully assess the movement of groundwater contamination at the site.

In addition to Environmental Restoration activities, DOE's Nevada Operations Office (DOE/Nevada) has provided waste disposal services for numerous off-site (out-of-state) DOE waste generators. NTS currently receives low-level waste from various off-site generators for disposal at the Area 5 and Area 3 low-level radioactive waste management sites. These sites are located on NTS proper in Frenchman and Yucca flats, up-gradient from Yucca Mountain and in proximity to the closed Beatty commercial low-level radioactive disposal site.

Between 1974 and 1994, there were about 8,400 shipments of low-level waste to the NTS (DOE/EIS 0243, page 6-11). DOE estimates suggest that over 20 million cubic feet of defense low-level waste has been disposed of at NTS. (Of note, about 46% of this amount was from nuclear testing operations at the NTS.) In comparison, only 4 million cubic feet of commercial low- level waste was shipped to the Beatty site, which is located in Nye County, Nevada.


In reference to waste disposal activities, DOE/Nevada has limited existing shipments to NTS to "approved generators" as per the Record of Decision (ROD) for the NTS Site-Wide EIS. Approved generators are generically defined as DOE sites and contractors that historically shipped waste to Nevada. One of the key decisions contained in the referenced ROD, at least from the State's perspective, is the moratorium on approval of new waste generators. DOE has decided that no new waste generators will be approved until the Department issues a decision on its Programmatic Waste Management EIS (Waste Management PEIS).

This concession by DOE largely follows from the State's litigation and its review comments on the NTS Draft and Final EIS. At issue, at least in part, is the continuing dispute over the land use restrictions contained in the public land orders that initially withdrew the NTS from public domain status. The lands encompassing the site are public lands that were "temporarily" withdrawn by the Department of Interior and "loaned" to DOE for atomic testing. The State has argued that atomic testing is not the same as using the site as a national waste disposal facility. This issue is being addressed by DOE as part of the settlement agreement (see attachments).

In reference to DOE's Waste Management PEIS, the ROD for this document, which is scheduled for release in May 1998, will in part focus on a national siting decision for low-level and mixed low-level waste disposal facilities. As it now stands, two or three sites from the following six sites will be chosen: NTS (Nevada), Hanford (Washington State), Idaho Engineering Laboratory (Idaho), the Los Alamos National Laboratory (New Mexico), the Oak Ridge Reservation (Tennessee), and Savannah River (South Carolina) (See DOE's Final Waste Management PEIS-DOE/EIS-0200-F, page 20). It is worth mentioning that officials in Nevada have reason to suspect that NTS will be strongly considered as a regional disposal site. Because of this and for the reasons mentioned above, State officials have developed the following equity issues for consideration by DOE. The State has formally requested that these issues be conceptually addressed in the forthcoming ROD for the Waste Management PEIS.


Overall, the State of Nevada has proposed five major equity issues that should be addressed in either the ROD for the Waste Management PEIS, through the 2006 planning process, or though other analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (i.e., in the Yucca Mountain Repository EIS .) The list of issues are presented below. Details about each issue are presented in the attached September 9, 1997 review comments on DOE'S 2006 plan, other referenced documents, and in letters between Governor Bob Miller and DOE officials.

Equity Issues:

  • Development of a Federal/State shared regulatory oversight program for Low-Level Waste disposal activities at the NTS;

  • Development of a Programmatic NEPA analysis of DOE "high-activity" waste and/or waste classified as Greater-Than-Class-C (GTCC) or equivalent waste types, which are considered not suitable for shallow-land burial;

  • Addressing the issue of prohibiting the transportation of radioactive waste through the Las Vegas Valley;

  • Assessment of the fee structure, as well as Life-Cycle Cost analysis for the operation, maintenance, and postclosure monitoring of LLW disposal activities at NTS; and

  • Initiating a health effects studyand monitoring program to "baseline" the impact of past nuclear testing on exposed populations in southern and eastern Nevada as well as a reevaluation of existing radiological monitoring programs at NTS in light of new mission activities such as soil and groundwater remediation and potential transport of large quantities of radioactive wastes to the site.








1. The DOE Weapons Complex is generally described as consisting of 15 major nuclear materials development and manufacturing facilities located in 10 different states. The complex produced nuclear weapons through a series of integrated manufacturing activities that included mining, milling and refining uranium, isotope separation of uranium, fuel and target fabrication for production reactors, reactor operations, chemical separation of plutonium, component fabrication, weapons assembly, and weapons testing

2. See United States District Court, District of Nevada, State of Nevada v. Pena, et al. CV-S-94-00576-PMP-(RLH)

3. U.S. Department of Energy, 1996. Environmental Impact Statement for the Nevada Test Site and Off-Site Locations in the State of Nevada (DOE/EIS 0243), Volume 1, Table 4-1 and 4-27, pages 4-6 and 4-126.

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