Radioactive dump that burned in Nevada had past troubles (Associated Press/Mining Gazette – October 25, 2015)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The operator of a closed radioactive waste dump that caught fire in southern Nevada had trouble over the years with leaky shipments and oversight so lax that employees took contaminated tools and building materials home, according to state and federal records.

The firm, now called US Ecology Inc., had its license suspended for mishandling shipments in the 1970s — about the same time that state officials say the material that exploded and burned last weekend was accepted and buried.

Nevada now has ownership and oversight of the property, which opened in 1962 near Beatty as the nation’s first federally licensed low-level radioactive waste dump and closed in 1992. State officials said this week they didn’t immediately know what blew up.

A soundless 40-second video turned over by US Ecology to state officials showed bursts of white smoke and dirt flying from several explosions on Oct. 18 from the dump in the brown desert about 110 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

A state fire inspector, Martin Azevedo, surveyed the site on Wednesday.

His report, obtained Friday by The Associated Press, described moisture in the pit and “heavily corroded” 55-gallon drums in and around the 20-foot-by-30-foot crater. Debris from the blast spread 190 feet. Two drums were found outside the fence line.

Jon Bakkedahl, state radiation control supervisor, said previously the material that exploded was probably buried in the mid-1970s.

Federal records say 4.7 million cubic feet of materials was buried before the 40-acre waste site closed. Officials say there are 22 trenches up to 100 feet deep and 800 feet long, with pits capped by up to 10 feet of clay and dirt.

The permit was for low-level solid radioactive waste, including contaminated tools, protective clothing, machine parts, medical items and laboratory supplies.

US Ecology, which was formerly known as Nuclear Engineering Co., said this week the Nevada radiological waste facility operated “under a different name and different ownership,” and referred questions about the fire to state officials. Nuclear Engineering Co. changed its name in 1981 to US Ecology.

The company today has 15 hazardous materials treatment, storage and disposal facilities around the country — including a 40-acre hazardous materials dump accepting toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, adjacent to the closed Beatty radioactive disposal site.

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