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DOE finalizing plans to dump man-made uranium in Nevada

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FILE: Undated: Oak Ridge National Laboratory complex, Oak Ridge, Tenn.AP

A Department of Energy plan to drag hundreds of canisters of radioactive nuclear material into the Nevada desert for a “shallow land burial” is raising safety concerns as experts worry what could happen if the security of the bomb-making material were compromised.

Energy officials told FoxNews.com the department is preparing to ship 403 welded steel containers of a man-made highly radioactive cargo to the Nevada National Security Site, about an hour northwest of Las Vegas. 

The canisters would carry about 2.6 kilograms of uranium-233 and uranium-235 – two products so dangerous that they require safety escorts and can only be handled with remote-controlled cranes. 

The radiation at the exterior of the canisters is about 300 rads (radiation absorbed dose), which categorizes it as a high-hazard level. According to Robert Alvarez of the Institute of Policy Studies, this raises serious proliferation and safety concerns.

“I went over to the headquarters, talked to project managers. They all sort of gave me the ‘I don’t know’ response,” Alvarez told FoxNews.com. “Nobody wants to deal with it.”

The DOE says the container sleeves act as a shield and reduce the radiation field by about half. The uranium 233 will be in ceramic form and welded shut which will add an extra level of protection.

The material would be transported from Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the government’s only facility for handling, processing and storing weapons-grade uranium.  The radioactive waste that could be headed Nevada’s way in a matter of days is what’s left over from a government research program in the 1980s called Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project.

“The CEUSP waste profile has been approved through the Waste Acceptance Review Panel, which includes the state of Nevada,” DOE spokeswoman Niketa Kumar said. “The department is continuing to coordinate with the state throughout the planning and approval process.”

No exact transport date has been given but sources say it could happen at any time.

Uranium-233 was first commissioned by the federal government in the 1950s when it was trying to find fuel for reactors and bombs. The government and the private sector created a man-made substitute and then went on to produce 3,400 pounds of it. Now the government says it doesn’t need it anymore and is left with finding a way to dispose of it.

“This is nasty stuff,” one federal official told The Las Vegas Review-Journal. “It’s a safeguard material that you watch over with lots of guns and make sure it is in a place you could safely say would be safe and people won’t be able to get to it.”

Uranium-235 is an isotope made up of 0.72 percent of uranium and was attractive to the government because it can undergo induced fission – something needed for producing nuclear power.

While some experts tell FoxNews.com they are not worried about the safety surrounding the disposal plan, others, like Alvarez urge caution.

Alvarez says DOE has yet to meet or address the challenges of ensuring that the uranium is accounted for and stored in safe facilities or creating a viable plan to safely dispose of it. He adds that the department’s decision to move the nuclear material “sets an exceptionally bad precedent for the rest of the world not just in terms of non-proliferation but in protecting public safety and security from concentrated fissile materials.”

Alvarez, who worked at the DOE and also served for five years as a senior investigator for what is now the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is widely regarded as an expert on the country’s nuclear weapons program.

The DOE says it is actively taking steps to make sure the radioactive material being prepped to be moved doesn’t do any harm.

“The Department is committed to the safe and secure shipment and disposal of these materials, and throughout this process, will ensure this work is done in accordance with both federal and state requirements for safe transportation and disposal,” Kumar said.  

Nevada is no stranger to being a government dump site for dangerous materials. In 1987, Congress tapped Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the place to build a permanent repository but in 2010, President Obama pulled the plug on the plan.  

South Carolina,Washington state and others then filed a suit to demand the DOE to go forward with its licensing application for Yucca Mountain.