WASHINGTON — Concern over a resumption of explosive nuclear testing prompted Nevada’s two senators to vote Tuesday against confirmation of President Donald Trump’s nominee for the second-highest post at the Department of Energy.
Despite their opposition, Undersecretary Mark Menezes was easily confirmed on a 79-16 vote to be deputy secretary of the department. He will have oversight over nuclear issues and the administration’s plans to store nuclear waste.
Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette thanked the Senate for coming together to confirm the president’s nominee.
“Mark’s years of experience forming energy policy on Capitol Hill and advocating for sensible energy strategies in the private sector make him extremely well-suited to take on this role,” Brouillette said.
But Nevada senators remained skeptical of the nominee and administration policy.
Menezes assured Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., during a committee hearing this year that the administration had reversed course on permanent storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
He also assured the senator that no future shipments of weapons-grade plutonium would be shipped from South Carolina to the Nevada National Security Site, located just north of Las Vegas.
Resuming nuclear tests?
Still, Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., became concerned after a published report quoted former and current administration officials about discussions to resume explosive nuclear testing, which would likely be conducted at the security site, according to a Senate aide to Rosen.
“Reports are suggesting that this Administration is prepared to jeopardize the health and safety of Nevadans, undercut our nation’s nuclear non-proliferation goals and further weaken strategic partnerships with our global allies just to flex its muscles on the global stage,” Cortez Masto said in a statement.
The last explosive nuclear tests at the Nevada facility were conducted in 1992, although smaller, or subcritical, testing continues at the Nevada site, which is run by the Department of Energy.
The possibility of a resumption in explosive nuclear testing prompted Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., to file companion bills in the House and Senate to block the administration from conducting those activities without congressional approval.
The House passed the bill that includes the Titus language banning explosive nuclear weapons tests.
Cortez Masto and Rosen also filed legislation in the Senate to limit the president from issuing a unilateral decision to resume testing.
Past shipment broke trust
The Nevada congressional delegation has been at odds with the Energy Department since Trump took office and proposed restarting the stalled licensing process for an application needed to build a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The licensing process was halted by then-President Barack Obama and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Trump included funding for the Yucca Mountain project in his first three budget blueprints to Congress, but made a sharp reversal this year.
Nevada is considered a swing state in the presidential election and could play a role in determining the outcome in the race for the White House.
Under questioning by Cortez Masto during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, Menezes said “the president has been very clear” on his plans for nuclear waste disposal.
“The administration will not be pursuing Yucca Mountain as a solution for nuclear waste, and I am fully supportive of the president’s decision and applaud him for taking action when so many have failed to do so,” Menezes told the senator.
Instead of funding for licensing of Yucca Mountain, the budget includes money to study interim-storage at private facilities in various states, which would take congressional approval to implement.
Menezes also told Cortez Masto that he would abide by an agreement reached by the senator and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry to begin moving a one-half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from Nevada, beginning in 2021.
The Energy Department was under federal court order in South Carolina to move the plutonium from that state when a facility to turn the material into fuel for nuclear power plants was scrapped.
Shipments of the plutonium were moved into Nevada as the state was preparing a motion seeking an injunction from a federal court in Reno. The state was notified months later during court hearings that the plutonium had already been shipped to Nevada, prompting state leaders to cry foul.