Explosions, fire at Nye dump

The shuttered Nevada dump for chemical and low-level nuclear wastes in Nye County experienced an Oct. 18 fire severe enough that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a team to monitor.

The long-troubled site near Beatty, owned by the state but operated by a commercial firm, has 40 acres surrounded by a 400-acre buffer zone. It opened in 1962. The fire began in a trench associated with 1970s burials of waste, according to one state official. However, the state has long lacked detailed information about what is buried at the site.

It was unclear whether the officials at the scene were checking for chemical as well as nuclear issues. During a series of hearings before the Nevada Board of Health in the early 1980s, testimony made clear that the site was used for chemicals as well as nuclear materials. At one hearing a chemical explosion was described. EPA San Francisco spokesperson Rusty Harris-Bishop said in an email message, “By the afternoon of October 19, no radiation above natural background was identified by these efforts, at which time EPA responders returned to their duty locations.”

The dump became a sensitive political issue in the late 1970s and early '80s. There were reports of sloppy procedures and transportation. Gov. Robert List (1979-1983) initially expressed his support for keeping the dump, but when Lt. Gov. Myron Leavitt threatened to close the dump if List left the state, List changed his stance. “Nevada is a gambling state, but I'm through gambling,” he said at a news conference announcing he would try to close the dump.

But shutdown required the consent of the Nevada Board of Health, dominated by physicians—and materials from nuclear medicine programs were disposed of at the dump. More than once, after testimony on operations at the site and in transport, the board refused List's request for closure. The dump was finally shut down in 1992. It is in the same county where the federal government tried to place a dump for high-level nuclear wastes, at Yucca Mountain.

The commercial operators of the dump, Nuclear Engineering Co., responded to the bad publicity in 1981 by changing the name of their company to U.S. Ecology and continued operating the dump after shutdown. Less than a minute of silent footage taken on Oct. 18 by that corporation was turned over to state officials. It reportedly showed explosions at the site.