WASHINGTON — The rift between Carson City and the Trump administration widened Friday after Energy Secretary Rick Perry responded to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s request for a meeting with the president — with pointed prodding at the Democratic governor for boycotting two White House events while he was in town.
While attending the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington last weekend, Sisolak announced that he would not attend two White House events and a lunch at Vice President Mike Pence’s residence to protest the Department of Energy’s shipment of a half-ton of weapons-grade plutonium to a federal facility 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas last year.
Perry, who attended the White House ball on Sunday and a White House briefing for the nation’s governors on Monday, wrote in a letter to Sisolak that he and Trump “regret your decision not to attend” the White House events, “which prevented us from discussing these issues in person.”
In a Feb. 6 letter to Perry, Sisolak expressed his “profound concern” over the department’s shipment of plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site “without notifying my predecessor, Gov. Brian Sandoval, or any member of Nevada’s federal delegation.”
Sisolak also cited Perry’s failure to respond before Feb. 19 as a reason for his decision to skip the events at the White House and Pence residence.
In a letter this week to Trump, Sisolak issued a formal request to meet with the president.
In his response Friday, Perry noted that on Aug. 29 , an energy official had notified Sisolak, then Clark County Commission chairman, of the department’s plan to ship weapons-grade plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site, the former Nevada Test Site, though he didn’t say when the shipment would occur. The official offered to brief Sisolak about the plan.
Asked about the briefing offer, Sisolak communications director Helen Kalla responded, “They’ve been saying that.”
The Energy Department, tasked with managing nuclear material, was under a federal court order in South Carolina to move one metric ton of plutonium from the Savannah River Site before January 2020.
“The Secretary of Energy spoke with Gov. Sandoval personally,” a senior Energy official who did not want to be identified told the Review-Journal. The department, the official said, told several Nevada officials of the plan to move plutonium to the Nevada facility.
Sandoval, a Republican, told the Review-Journal that he talked to Perry and his staff about the plutonium plan.
“They might have said they wanted to (ship the plutonium to Nevada),” Sandoval said. “They never said they were going to.”
DOE spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes responded that Sandoval’s recollection “does not change the fact that both him and his staff were notified and briefed on the Department’s plan to move material to Nevada.”
Sandoval went to court to try to stop the plutonium transfer in November, only to learn in January that the DOE had moved the nuclear material before the state filed suit.
“That was a complete blindside for me that they had already sent it,” he said.
The senior DOE official said by law the agency could not disclose that the plutonium was moved until “30 days after the completion.”
“We don’t let people know, potential adversaries know, when we’re moving nuclear weapons or special nuclear material around,” the official said.
Sisolak’s office said Friday that it was confident that had Sandoval “been made aware of actual shipments into the State of Nevada, including a timeline for transport, in August 2018, the Sandoval administration would not have pressed forward with negotiations and litigation surrounding DOE’s planned shipment for months after.
“The governor has full faith that, had Gov. Sandoval been made aware of actual shipments to Nevada, as Secretary Perry’s letter alleges, he would have notified the chairman of Nevada’s most populous county,” the statement from Sisolak’s office said.
Sisolak’s decision to boycott the White House NGA meetings drew differing reactions from two former Nevada lawmakers.
“I wouldn’t have done the same thing. Sisolak has a right to make the decisions he made,” said former GOP Sen. Dean Heller, who lost his re-election bid in November.
Former Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., however, found Sisolak’s strategy “entirely appropriate. He decided not to attend social events, but shipping plutonium through the state of Nevada is a serious issue and certainly within the governor’s purview to oppose and express his opinion to the president.”
In his letter to Trump, Sisolak also complained that he had not been invited to join a bipartisan trip to the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain that had been scheduled for Friday, but was later canceled.
“The way the planned visit was handled, with no notice to my office from Sec. Perry or the DOE until after the visit was canceled, is like the way the shipment of plutonium was managed – in secret, without my office’s input, and with disclosure to me after the fact,” he wrote.
In his Friday letter, Perry offered that “appropriate administration officials stand ready to engage with you in a fact-based dialogue.” Perry also invited Sisolak and his staff to visit the Nevada National Security Site. “A tour of the site will afford another opportunity to provide you the briefing we offered in August of last year.”