DOE's Moniz fights history of distrust as Nevada pols (again) try to have it both ways

Nearly three quarters of a century ago, the first bomb exploded in the desert a short drive from Las Vegas, heralding hundreds of more, complete with mushroom clouds and manifest toxicity for those downwind before the tests went underground.

A mere quarter-century ago, in the soon-to-be-dubbed Screw Nevada Bill, Congress designated Nevada as the lone site to be studied for a nuclear waste repository, not far from where all those detonations had taken place.

And from that moment forward, Nevada elected officials have slid down, then awkwardly climbed up the slippery slope they erected there. What a waste.

It is on that political precipice Nevada politicians now stand, acting as if they are the Earps at the OK Corral willing to defend the homestead against evil interlopers but looking more like the comical Pythonites throwing cows over the ramparts in a scene that can hardly be taken seriously.

What seems to be missed in the ongoing tempest over low-level waste the Department of Energy wants to store at the Nevada National Security Site, nee the Nevada Test Site, is that plenty of uranium is stored there already. The tentative way that Sen. Harry Reid and Gov. Brian Sandoval have approached the issue – first seeming to wave it off but now gravely (it’s always gravely!) concerned – is emblematic of how phony the politics on this always has been. And Rep. Dina Titus, who has been a loud critic of the DOE on these shipments, should know the checkered history – she did, after all, write a book called, "Bombs in Our Backyard."

Into this hornet’s nest wades the relatively new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is immediately stung by the years of DOE incompetence and dissembling that has caused every Nevada pol to approach the agency with a stinger and not an olive branch extended.

In a press availability at the National Clean Energy Summit and an exclusive interview I had after he met with Sandoval, Moniz tried to play the politician but the scientist crept through. Moniz emphasized that only 5 percent of the waste the DOE shipments goes to the NNSS, which, of course, means this stuff has been transported here before and is being stored there now.

Wait, is that a mini-Chernobyl I smell? Pack your bags!

Moniz told me that although the waste being considered from Oak Ridge is “of a slightly different character,” it is “low-level waste. Clearly, it has some of the same characteristics as the waste at the NNSS.”

Is it any more dangerous? I wondered.

“It’s been labeled as low-level waste,” Moniz repeated. “Low-level waste has its requirements.”

That is, it falls well within the spectrum allowed by law.

Moniz said he and the governor agreed to set up a working group to discuss the shipment. And they put out a joint statement that was a marvel of palaver.

But what if after all of these frank and candid, productive and meaningful conversations, the state does not agree to take the waste?

“I’m not going to speculate on that,” Moniz, who also spoke with Reid and Titus on Tuesday, told me from a plane before he left on a trip to Paraguay. “We are trying to be cooperative. We have done and will do, three special things.”

That is, they will endure the shipment is secure, do a test that is 10 times more intense than usual and bury it more safely than required.

These are the “special precautions” the secretary referred to during that Senate Energy Committee hearing as he answered Sen. Dean Heller’s questions. He has never been able to produce the memos that he implied indicate the state signed off,  but he doesn’t really have to because...the state can’t really stop the shipment.

Even Reid, pointing out that this is interstate commerce, has said Sandoval’s options are limited and that this isn’t like fighting against Yucca Mountain. It’s so hard for voters to discern, though, isn’t it, when you have a pack of pols crying wolf every time the word “waste” is mentioned.

It could kill people! Hide the children!

Proportionality? Good luck getting that.

I understand both Moniz’s evident frustration and the Nevada political class’ reluctance to trust a department that made Nevada the nation’s nuclear proving grounds in the '50s and wants the state to keep on giving. (On Tuesday morning, an appeals court told the Obama administration to restart the Yucca dump permitting process. Moniz emphasized Tuesday that he still favors a consent-based approach -- as opposed, perhaps, to what wiull happen on low-level waste. But on Yucca, that means little so long as Reid can strangle the appropriations process.)

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the headline on Sun reporter Andrew Doughman's story about Moniz’s brief press availability: “Moniz: Oak Ridge nuclear waste shouldn’t be a big deal for Nevada”

That was, essentially, his message. And now Nevada politicians, standing atop that slippery slope, know that as they insist it IS a big deal, their footing is hardly sound.

(Images from ancroiat and