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Mystery memos fuel battle between Nevada, DOE over nuclear waste

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A U.S. Air Force humvee is driven past as anti-nuclear activists walk after a sunrise ceremony just outside the Nevada test site near Mercury, Nevada, 60 miles north of Las Vegas. (Reuters)

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz plans to meet with Nevada’s governor on Tuesday to discuss an escalating dispute between the state and the federal government over where to dump hundreds of canisters of radioactive waste, FoxNews.com has learned.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks over who should be forced to keep the nuclear material. The federal government says Nevada signed off on a series of memos agreeing to take it, but Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval says those talks never happened -- and says his state shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of burying toxic waste in its backyard. 

“The state of Nevada is not aware of any signed memos between the state and DOE regarding the approval of the material in question,” Mac Bybee, the governor’s communication director, told FoxNews.com. 

Both Sandoval's office and the Department of Energy confirmed that Moniz and the governor will meet on Tuesday. 

Bybee says his office hasn’t located any memo from any state-level agency that has had contact with the Energy Department regarding the security, transportation or disposal of nuclear material. 

That’s a problem because Moniz testified under oath during a July 30 Senate hearing to their existence.

“There were long discussions held, many memos signed on specifically this particular low-level waste movement,” Moniz told senators. “The department agreed to special activities for the disposal. The department agreed to do something unprecedented – to move this in secured transports.”

DOE spokeswoman Keri Fulton told FoxNews.com that Moniz “looks forward to having a productive conversation with Governor Sandoval tomorrow to resolve this important issue."

Sandoval, a former federal judge and state attorney general, has also accused the DOE of trying to set a dangerous precedent by exploiting a regulatory loophole to classify the waste as a low-level hazard so that it can be buried at a nuclear test location about an hour northwest of Las Vegas.

The canisters in question carry about 2.6 kilograms of uranium-233 and uranium-235 – two products that require safety escorts and can only be handled with remote-controlled cranes. The material is left over from a government research project in the 1980s called Consolidated Edison Uranium Solidification Project.

Tennessee currently has possession of all 403 welded steel containers of the bomb-making material.

The material was set to be transported from Oak Ridge National Laboratory -- the government’s only facility for handling, processing and storing weapons-grade uranium -- to Nevada earlier this year but that never happened. And if Nevada has its way, it never will.

Uranium-233 was first commissioned by the federal government 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 make 3,400 pounds of it. The government says it doesn’t need it anymore and now is left with the prickly task of finding a way to get rid of it.

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

Earlier this year, FoxNews.com spoke with Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies about the serious safety and proliferation concerns around the material.

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

Sen. Harry Reid, and Rep. Dina Titus, both Democrats from Nevada, have also spoken out against the plan.

This isn’t the first fight Nevada has had over nukes.

The state and its federal elected officials have fought for more than three decades to block federal plans to ship and dump radioactive waste that’s been piling up at nuclear power plants around the country to Yucca Mountain.