LAS VEGAS — Radioactive well-water contamination could threaten some 1,400 people in a rural farming community if federal regulators allow the nation’s deadliest nuclear waste to be buried in the Nevada desert, state officials said in a report issued Friday.
A 53-page document submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission derides environmental assessments of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository as legally inadequate. It also characterizes the project itself as “an unworkable waste management plan at an unsafe repository site.”
The state says groundwater studies don’t properly address the danger to people in nearby Amargosa Valley or the cultural and spiritual effect that construction of the repository would have on Native Americans.
“In the end, there are real people there,” said Robert Halstead, chief of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects and the top state official leading opposition to the project.
“That’s the thing about the way the NRC has approached the whole process,” Halstead said Friday. “Their maps imply there is no population there. They label it as the Amargosa desert.”
George Gholson, chairman of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, submitted additional comments Friday accusing commission officials of failing to evaluate effects that building the project would have on tribal members.
“Radioactive contamination of groundwater and springs ... affronts the Timbisha’s way of life, is disrespectful to cultural beliefs, and constitutes an environmental justice infringement on the rights of a sovereign nation,” the letter said.
The documents amount to the state staking its legal ground to oppose the Yucca Mountain project. They came on the last day of an environmental study comment period ahead of yet-to-be-scheduled licensing hearings and amid calls from some in Congress to restart the long-mothballed project.
Commission officials didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
More than three decades of study yielded findings that water seeping through tunnels containing some 77,000 tons of spent nuclear reactor waste could become contaminated and slowly migrate into groundwater west along the normally dry course of the ancient Amargosa River, toward Death Valley in California.
An NRC staff report released in August characterized the risk as small. It said someone drinking 2 liters of groundwater a day would accumulate less radiation than from natural and background sources.
Some area residents told commission officials during hearings in Amargosa Valley in September that they fear contamination and the stigma of being labeled a nuclear dumping ground.
“They’re writing us off as a sacrifice zone,” said Ed Goedhart, a former dairy farmer and Republican state lawmaker. “I, for one, am not OK with it.”
Others said they want plans for the Yucca Mountain project finally put before the agency for a yes or no decision.
“As the local jurisdiction most affected by the program, we and eight other Nevada counties have asked that the license application process be finalized,” said Dan Schinhofen, a Nye County commissioner. “As long as the science determines a repository to be safe, we support the effort.”
The idea of burying the nation’s nuclear waste 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas was first proposed in 1982. Congress approved the site in 2002, over the state’s objection.
Work stopped in 2010 after President Barack Obama was elected, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada became Democratic majority leader, and Congress shut off funding.
A federal appeals court breathed new life into the project in 2013 with an order that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission either approve or reject the Energy Department license application.
Officials say a full slate of licensing hearings could take at least three years.