The Nevada Legislature has taken the first step in demanding that the federal government make amends for massive radioactive contamination left from decades of nuclear weapons testing on a swath of desert the size of Rhode Island.
In a joint resolution, the state's Senate and House are asking the federal government to contain and mitigate about 300 million curies of contamination left in the soil and water of the former Nevada Test Site, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas.
The Energy Department detonated 921 nuclear warheads underground before testing ended in 1992. It is estimated that 1.6 trillion gallons of water in aquifers under the site are radioactively contaminated with the byproducts of the bomb tests.
The resolution will open the way for Nevada to demand compensation for the loss of its water resources, said state Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, the resolution's lead sponsor.
He said the resolution came about from a detailed examination of the radioactive legacy of testing that was published by the Los Angeles Times in November 2009.
"It is one of the largest contamination zones in the U.S., if not the world," Goedhart said. "If we are prevented from using our water resources, it is a taking and we should be compensated."
The Energy Department has said the contaminated water is moving very slowly downhill toward Death Valley National Park, but it could take thousands of years to reach any affected community.
Until then, it would be technically and economically impossible to purify the water, some of which is 5,000 feet below the surface, Energy Department scientists have asserted.
"The test site has been declared a sacrifice zone," said Joe Strollin, acting director of the state of Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects. "The federal officials are basically taking the approach that this can never be cleaned up and will be monitored in perpetuity."
Darwin Morgan, spokesman for the federal facility, now known as the Nevada National Security Site, said the federal government has broadly involved state and local officials in its efforts under a consent order to monitor the contaminated water.
"We have a process where we work very closely with the state. We are monitoring where that water is going, which includes involvement by the state of Nevada."
He added that the state engineer of Nevada, not the Energy Department, has rejected applications to pump water from the site.
There is little dispute that the water held under the test site could be valuable in parched southern Nevada. A local hydrologist estimated in 2009 that the 1.6 trillion gallons of water would be worth $48 billion, based on water rights sales in Nye County, where the test site is located.
The resolution will do little more than ask the federal government to discuss the matter with state officials, Strollin said. Nevada has looked at filing a formal legal demand for compensation over the last year, but such legal action would be difficult to press, he said.
Goedhart said the resolution was passed unanimously last week and sent to the secretary of state for enrollment, which is pending.