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Attorneys spar over plan to bring dangerous nuke material to Nevada

RENO — The form of plutonium that the federal government wants to ship to a site less than 100 miles from Las Vegas is more dangerous than the material used to trigger nuclear explosions, Nevada officials testified in a lawsuit seeking to block the shipment Thursday.

That testimony came during a hearing on a lawsuit filed by the state of Nevada that seeks to prevent the Trump administration from shipping a metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from the Department of Energy’s Savannah River site in South Carolina to the Nevada National Security Site, located about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Attorneys for the state and federal governments made their arguments in front of U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du, who did not announce a decision but said that she will do her best to issue one quickly.

The Energy Department is under federal court order in South Carolina to move the plutonium to comply with environmental laws.

Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Director Brad Crowell, who testified Thursday, said afterward that the Energy Department “is attempting to stuff plutonium in Nevada that South Carolina doesn’t want, without providing any assurances that our health and safety would be protected.”

A key issue in the case is whether the Department of Energy needs to conduct a new environmental impact study to analyze potential issues that could arise from transporting and storing nuclear material. Department of Justice attorneys representing the Energy Department argued that such a study isn’t needed because one was published in 2013 dealing with plutonium shipments in the state.

Attorneys for the Nevada Attorney General’s office said the study referenced by the federal government relies on data from 2010. And because Las Vegas’ population and overall population density has increased since then, they continued, a new study must be done.

Crowell also said afterward that the Department of Energy has changed how it has classified the material, from waste to weapons-usable material, in order to avoid a new environmental review.

Nevada officials complained that the Department of Energy has not said exactly what material would be transferred or what route would be taken to bring it through Nevada. The federal government said that information is classified.

Crowell testified that the material — believed to be plutonium 239 — is more volatile than the type of plutonium used to trigger nuclear explosions. Plutonium 239, one of the major isotopes used in nuclear weapons, is likely to be in a powder or granular form, making it inherently less stable than the plutonium that has been put into what are called pits — the cores of implosion nuclear weapons.

The timing of Du’s decision could be important as without the injunction ruling, the Energy Department could start the shipping process next week, though exactly when that could happen isn’t clear. Attorneys for the federal government said those details are also classified.

New Attorney General Aaron Ford, who took office after the lawsuit was filed, said he was “proud of the efforts of our talented team of attorneys and experts who have been actively working to keep this dangerous shipment from crossing our borders.

“The safety and well-being of Nevadans remains our primary concern, and the State will continue its firm commitment to protecting all Nevadans,” Ford said in a statement.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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