Release of memos won't solve any nuclear waste mystery, nor make it easier to tamp down tensions

When talking about nuclear waste in Nevada, separating the substance from the politics would have confounded Einstein.

But after a couple of weeks of probing what exactly has gone on with the state and the DOE over a proposed waste shipment from Tennessee, here’s what I have concluded:

►Memos first disclosed at a Senate Energy Committee hearing two weeks ago by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and now posted on this site did not say what he said they do. He clearly implied the state had signed the memos. And the state never “agreed” to take the waste, although the documents indicate Nevada officials assented to certain special precautions for burying the waste.

►A communications breakdown and canceled meetings during the last few months caused the governor’s office to speak out against the DOE’s behavior, although with Rep. Dina Titus and then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid making noise, Gov. Brian Sandoval also may have felt he had no political option.

►The waste we are talking about is at the high end of the low-level waste spectrum – not unlike some waste already stored at the Nevada National Security Site. But it has made state officials wonder what other kinds of low-level waste might be headed our way and what special precautions need to be taken.

►The DOE and the state want an amicable relationship. Of that I have no doubt. But the state’s long history with Yucca Mountain clouds everything, as do politicians trying to score points as they have since the Screw Nevada Bill of 1987.

►Nevada probably can’t stop this shipment – and state officials, including the former federal judge who is governor, know that. The question is whether some accommodations can be reached to make the relationship less adversarial, and how much the politicians are an impediment to doing so. The so-called working group that Sandoval and Moniz agreed to form this week is supposed to accomplish just that. But with partisan politics and state-vs.-federal politics is interfering – Rep. Dina Titus this week accused the Sandoval administration of stonewalling – that working group may not…work.

I spent some time Friday on the phone with Leo Drozdoff, a complete pro who heads the state department of Conservation and National Resources.  His overriding point was that while there is similar waste stored here, it’s hard to tell what is out there or what other waste the DOE wants to ship, so it’s incumbent upon him to find out everything he can about the future, no matter what’s happened in the past.

Drozdoff told me that the Dec. 12 letter from the DOE to the state, outlining that Nevada officials had agreed to special precautions for burying the waste is “accurate in as far as it goes.” Drozdoff said that the state is not just concerned with how the waste will be buried at the site but how it will be transported and what other, overriding policy concerns must be resolved.

Drozdoff said the shipment from Oak Ridge is at the upper reaches of low-level waste spectrum, which extends from a keyboard to this very toxic waste. “Basically, except for the atomic number, this is just like transuranic waste,” he said, referring to nuclear garbage shipped to New Mexico. “Clearly this is right up the upper limit of the spectrum.”

Drozdoff said the “biggest issue I see is that this is precedent-setting. If you were in my shoes, wouldn’t you ask the question: ‘What else is out there?’”

Of course. But the question is whether this truly is a precedent-setting delivery to Nevada or just like the many others that have been transported and buried safely at the test site.

Moniz indicated to me this week that the waste had the same characteristics as other waste at the site. Drozdoff acknowledged that may be true, but added, “We’re not trying to tell you it’s transuranic waste. But it’s not your garden-variety low-level stuff. We just don’t want this to be death by incrementalism… Are we setting ourselves up for something a year from now.”

But Nevada can’t stop it, right?

“There is no regulatory approval hook,” Drozdoff conceded. But he pointed out that the DOE wants to have a productive, cordial relationship with the state. He’s right, as evidenced by Moniz’s carefully chosen words to try to tamp down the controversy this week --  after all, they have plenty of stuff they want to give us later, right?

Drozdoff took me through the post-December timelines, detailing a series of meetings, some of which were canceled in what may just have been scheduling conflicts but which clearly set off alarm bells with the governor’s office.

“They were setting up briefings for the governor so he can be fully informed as to what was going on,” Sandoval spokesman Mac Bybee said. “The DOE canceled, for whatever reason.”

It seems clear that the history of distrust was inflamed when these meetings, including one set up with local government officials in Southern Nevada, “fell flat,” to use Drozdoff's description. With suspicions aroused after April and May meetings didn’t come off as hoped, the political trajectory was assured with Titus and Reid criticizing the DOE and Sandoval soon following suit with the proverbial strongly worded letter.

Fine.

Reid has since backed off, saying the governor’s options are limited, which clearly is true. So where does it stand now?

Drozdoff insists that the meetings Tuesday between Moniz and Sandoval and one involving staffers were productive. But he added that the state, considering the entirety of the issues not just burial, “never got comfortable to say we wouldn’t object to this.”

My guess is that the DOE doesn’t want to ram this though because of what that would do to relations with the state while Nevada folks would like to get a better handle on what the agency has in store for the NNSS. That’s the incrementalism Drozdoff fears.

The incipient working group may be able to come to some accommodation, if the politicians let them. If.

This week on “Ralston Reports,” Titus accused the governor’s office of stiff-arming her requests for information:

DT: "I want to know what happened to make the state change their mind when they bought off on this to start with."

JR: "Have you talked to Brian Sandoval?"

DT: "We have put in a lot of requests of the governor's office and they have been reluctant to give us information -- just as the DOE has been."

JR: "Come on: You are telling me the governor's office in Nevada has been reluctant to give a congressional representative information?"

DT: "The timeline and the memos and when these decisions were made (by the state), and we now know they were made last December. This word from the governor came out in July that he didn't want it, after they signed off in December, so something's happened in there."

(The full conversation is below, starting at the 9-minutes-left mark.)

When the governor’s office denied this, Titus said she “slightly misspoke" and said Drozdoff had only provided her only what is in the public realm. Clearly, she would have liked to have seen those memos from December. (I understand her frustration because I always believed the governor’s office knew what Moniz was talking about, even though his description wasn’t exactly accurate about what they were.)

Knowing Titus, she is unlikely to leave this alone, even if Reid tried to get her to be more circumspect, sarcastically saying on VegasPBS: “Maybe she knows more than I know.”

I doubt that. And if it’s true, Prince Harry is losing his touch.

But, seriously, the politicians squabbling and posturing may back the state and the DOE into a corner, one too small for any working group to operate. And if that occurs, the productive, cordial relationship will disappear as, unfortunately, nuclear waste politics never does.

(Photo credits to windenergyplanning.com, politico.com.)