RENO, Nev. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Energy revealed on Wednesday that it secretly shipped weapon-grade plutonium from South Carolina to a nuclear security site in Nevada months ago despite the state’s protests.
Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford (L) and Governor Steve Sisolak
The justice department notified a federal judge in Reno that the government trucked in the radioactive material to store at the site 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of Las Vegas before Nevada asked a court to block the move in November.
Department lawyers said in a nine-page filing that the previously classified information about the shipment from South Carolina can be disclosed now because enough time has passed to protect national security. They didn’t specify when the one-half metric ton of plutonium was transferred.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said he’s “beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception.” He said he’s working with Nevada’s congressional delegation to fight back against the U.S. government’s “reckless disregard” for the safety of Nevadans.
Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen called the move “deceitful and unethical,” and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, also a Nevada Democrat, said she would demand department officials come to her office on Thursday to explain how they made the “reckless decision” in such “bad faith.”
Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to use Nevada as a dumping ground for nuclear waste. Trump revived a decades-old proposal to store the nation’s nuclear waste at another site outside Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain, after the project was essentially halted under the Obama administration.
Justice department lawyers also said Wednesday that no more shipments of weapons-grade plutonium are planned from South Carolina to Nevada. They said they believe Nevada’s lawsuit aimed at blocking the shipments is now moot.
But lawyers for Nevada said Wednesday that their bid for an emergency injunction is more critical than ever after the energy department misled them about the shipments. They say the government has created the “palpable suspicion” that more shipments are coming to Nevada.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in Reno is considering the state’s request to block the energy department’s plans, announced in August, to ship a full metric ton of plutonium to Nevada from South Carolina, where a federal judge previously ordered that the plutonium be removed from a Savannah River site by 2020.
Nevada argues the DOE has failed to adequately study the potential dangers of moving the material to an area that is subject to flash floods and earthquakes, and that the state’s lands and groundwater may already be contaminated with radioactive materials.
In January, Du declined to immediately block the plutonium and indicated she wouldn’t rule until February.
“I hope the government doesn’t ship plutonium pending a ruling by this court,” she said at the time.
Nevada and the justice department filed their latest briefs Wednesday at the request of the judge, who questioned whether the case should go forward. Justice department lawyers said any additional plutonium removed from South Carolina would not go to Nevada.
Meanwhile, the states of Nevada and South Carolina are continuing to argue over where any legal challenge should be heard. Each said in briefs filed in Reno last week that theirs is the proper venue.
Nevada’s experts testified that the material likely would have to pass directly through Las Vegas on the way to the Nevada National Security Site. They fear an accident could permanently harm an area that is home to 2.2 million residents and hosts more than 40 million tourists a year.
The energy department’s plan approved last August called for the full ton of material to be stored at the Nevada nuclear security site and the government’s Pantex Plant in Texas, two facilities that already handle and process plutonium. The department says it would be sent by 2027 to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico or another unnamed facility.
Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak: “I am beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Department led the State of Nevada to believe that they were engaging in good-faith negotiations with us regarding a potential shipment of weapons-grade plutonium, only to reveal that those negotiations were a sham all along. They lied to the State of Nevada, misled a federal court, and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment. My administration is working with our federal delegation, and we will use the full force of every legal tool available to fight back against the federal government’s reckless disregard for the safety of our state.”
US Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV): “It’s unconscionable that the Department of Energy (DOE) and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) went into federal court in Nevada and failed to disclose that they shipped weapons grade plutonium into our backyards. Not only did Secretary Perry and the agencies under his direction act in bad faith by totally ignoring the will of our Governor, their decision also completely disregards the health and safety of Nevadans.
"Tomorrow, I’ll have representatives of the DOE and NNSA in my office to brief me. I’ll be demanding they explain why these agencies ignored a federal court and how this reckless decision was made. The Trump Administration will find that I’ll be shining a bright light on this, as well as any high level effort to bring nuclear waste into our state by reviving Yucca Mountain. The voices of Nevadans must be heard and I’ll be fighting for legislation that makes certain their voices are heard on this issue and this never happens behind the backs of Nevadans again.”
US Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV): “Today, the National Nuclear Security Administration revealed that it moved forward with shipping dangerous, weapons-grade plutonium to our state without informing anyone of their plans. They misled a federal court along with Members of Nevada’s delegation, including our very own governor, in a deceitful and unethical move, jeopardizing the health and safety of thousands of Nevadans and Americans who live in close proximity to shipment routes. This is a serious issue and the lack of transparency from the Department of Energy is absolutely unacceptable. I am prepared to take action with Governor Sisolak and the Nevada delegation in holding this Administration accountable for this reckless decision.”
FROM SAVANNAH SITE RIVER WATCH: The shipment of the plutonium involved its transfer from the K-Reactor storage facility at the Savannah River Site to the Nevada Nuclear Security Site, according to Savannah River Site Watch. Almost 13 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium had been stored in the K-Rector prior to the shipment.
It is unclear when the shipment of ½ metric ton (500 kilograms or 1100 pounds) took place, but the Department of Energy January 30, 2019, informed the federal district court in Nevada that the shipment had concluded prior to November 2018. For security reasons, no public notice was given before the shipment took place, and the highway route taken by the secure DOE transport vehicles has not been revealed.
In the “Notice of New Information” filed with the United States District Court for the District of Nevada, DOE said, “Because sufficient time has now elapsed after conclusion of this campaign, DOE may now publicly state that it has completed all shipment of plutonium (approximately ½ metric ton) to Nevada pursuant to its efforts to comply with the South Carolina U.S. District Court order. Although the precise date that this occurred cannot be revealed for reasons of operational security, it can be stated that this was done before November 2018, prior to the initiation of the litigation.”
“The shipment of this large amount of plutonium on our nation’s highways has no justification beyond pleasing the federal court in South Carolina and due to the environmental and security risks it posed it should have never taken place,” according to Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch. “We hope that this shipment concludes the campaign to transfer plutonium from SRS to Nevada and that the remaining plutonium at SRS remains in secure storage until a disposition path is clear,” he adds.
DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration has claimed it has reclassified the plutonium in question as having a national defense need and that it could at some unknown point be fabricated into plutonium “pits” for nuclear weapons.