Nevada radioactive waste site fire draws investigation

LAS VEGAS — Nevada state officials said Tuesday they don’t know what sparked an apparent explosion and fire at a closed commercial radioactive waste dump in a predominantly rural county, but they vowed that the state will handle the investigation and cleanup.

“We have the jurisdiction. We have the assets, and that’s the course of action,” James Wright, state Department of Public Safety chief, said after reporters asked Nevada emergency, health and environmental protection officials whether state agencies should investigate each other.

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“If we have to fix it, we’ll fix it,” Wright vowed.

The 80-acre industrial dump in Nye County about 115 miles northwest of Las Vegas is on state land and is under state regulatory oversight.

State emergency management chief Caleb Cage and Fire Marshal Peter Mulvihill said the fire burned unabated after starting Sunday during intense thunderstorms and flash flooding in the area.

Hours after the fire burned itself out early Monday, moon-suited teams from the Nevada National Guard and the Las Vegas Police Department’s ARMOR unit got to within about 6 feet of a kettle-shaped crater. in what had been a 10-foot earthen cap and took radiation and hazardous-materials readings.

All of the measurements were negative, Cage said.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crews never reached the site on Monday, said Rusty Harris-Bishop, EPA spokesman in San Francisco. They returned to Los Angeles and Las Vegas after initial reports that measurements found no escaped radiation. Now, first-responders have backed off while investigators locate archived paperwork to determine what was buried in the burned trench — No. 14 of 22 — in the former US Ecology Inc. site 11 miles south of the unincorporated town of Beatty. Mulvihill said.

“This will be a complex investigation,” the state’s top fire investigator said. “It will take a bit of time.”

Officials say there’s no ongoing public safety risk. Roads and schools closed because of the fire and road damage following the torrential downpours have reopened in nearby Beatty and Amargosa Valley. Some other area roads remain closed and badly damaged, including a popular route to Scotty’s Castle, a historic home, in Death Valley National Park.

Town hall meetings were scheduled Tuesday evening in Beatty and Thursday in Amargosa Valley to inform and update residents about the fire and storm damage repairs, Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly said.

Nye County commissioners on Tuesday ratified emergency declarations issued Sunday because of storm damage and fire, after several people expressed concerns about safety and security at the 80-acre industrial dump.

The facility opened in 1962 as the first commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal facility licensed by the federal government. It was one of six regional sites in the nation. It closed in 1992. Nevada took jurisdiction in 1997, and it leases a 400-acre buffer zone around the dump from the federal Bureau of Land Management.

US Ecology continues to accept hazardous and non-hazardous industrial material on 40 acres of the dump site. The federal EPA licensed it in 2012 to accept toxic polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, waste.

The trench that burned may have been filled and capped in the 1970s, said Jon Bakkedahl, radiation control supervisor in the Nevada state health department. Officials found nothing unusual or amiss during a periodic inspection of the site in April, he said.

Nye County emergency management chief Vance Payne told the county commission that incident managers initially feared about 2,000 people in the sprawling rural area would need to be evacuated if radiation had been detected.

Mulvihill told reporters that all but two employees left the US Ecology hazardous materials recycling and disposal facility adjacent to the radioactive waste dump, but evacuations weren’t ordered for residents 8 miles away.

Low-level waste is solid material considered less lethal than high-level radioactive waste of the type proposed for entombment at Yucca Mountain, not far away. It doesn’t include used fuel from nuclear power plants or waste from U.S. defense programs. It can include contaminated tools, protective clothing and plant hardware such as steam generators from nuclear plants, as well as medical items and laboratory supplies.

Judy Treichel, a longtime opponent of a federal proposal to entomb the nation’s most radioactive material at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, compared the fire near Beatty with incidents that led to EPA Superfund designation for a site that accepted low-level radioactive waste in the 1960s and 1970s at Maxey Flats, Kentucky.

Treichel, head of the nonprofit Nuclear Waste Task Force, also questioned whether Nevada state officials should be conducting the investigation of the fire.

“I wonder if the state environmental department is smart, skilled and motivated to really dig through this thing,” she said. “The state is the property owner. The state is on the hook if there are big costs.”


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