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Nevada asks federal court to block more plutonium shipments

Updated March 6, 2019 - 5:15 pm

WASHINGTON Nevada is asking a federal appeals court to block the Department of Energy from secretly moving more weapons-grade plutonium into the state.

In a brief from Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford filed on Monday, the state cited the department’s own analysis pointing to the dangers of radiation exposure from trucking plutonium to the Silver State from South Carolina.

Nevada residents were at risk of exposure equal to 100 to 200 chest X-rays for the next three years, the state claimed in the brief, citing the DOE analysis.

State lawyers also noted the department’s ongoing efforts to open a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, against the state’s wishes, and local efforts to stop the plutonium transfer to the Nevada National Security Site, both within 100 miles of Las Vegas.

“The United States Department of Energy is attempting to turn the State of Nevada into the nation’s radioactive dump,” the brief states.

The brief was filed with the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The DOE has until April 1 to respond to the state’s filing.

The department was under a federal court order to move the plutonium out of South Carolina, where the government has discontinued construction of a facility to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants.

Energy officials, in an analysis released last August, said approximately one metric ton of plutonium would be shipped to the Nevada National Security Site and the Pantex Plant, a nuclear weapons facility near Amarillo, Texas. The plutonium would be stored at those sites until it could be shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Nevada filed a motion in federal court on Nov. 30 seeking to block the shipment. District Judge Miranda Du in Reno heard arguments on the motion in January, and urged that no plutonium be moved to the state pending her ruling.

The department later disclosed that one-half metric ton of plutonium had already been sent to the Nevada site before the state sought its injunction in November.

A federal lawyer said the transfer had not been disclosed previously because the delivery had not yet been declassified. The DOE said no further shipments were coming to Nevada, prompting Du to dismiss Nevada’s request for the injunction.

Gov. Steve Sisolak and the state’s congressional delegation accused Energy officials and the Trump administration of underhanded tactics in the secret shipments.

The DOE said in the August analysis the plutonium would be shipped by truck, and generally along Interstate 40. But the department did not tell the state which route the shipments took to reach the Nevada site or whether the trucks traveled through Las Vegas.

Nevada, in its latest request of the 9th Circuit Court to block further shipments, cited the DOE’s own arguments in the 4th Circuit Court seeking an injunction against moving the radioactive material out of South Carolina.

Energy officials claimed Savannah River Site was the only place designed to store that much plutonium, and they could not safely transport the material to other destinations until 2025 without potentially exposing people to radiation along the way.

The 4th District Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that ordered that the plutonium be moved out of South Carolina.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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