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Nevada leaders want answers from DOE in wake of plutonium shipment

Updated February 1, 2019 - 5:20 pm

WASHINGTON — Nevada’s congressional delegation pushed for classified briefings Friday from the Department of Energy over a secret plutonium shipment to a site north of Las Vegas that the federal government says occurred before the state filed a lawsuit to block the toxic transfer.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Rep. Steven Horsford, both Democrats, grilled federal officials Thursday about the movement of one-half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina that was shipped by truck into the state.

Nevada lawmakers are concerned about the route of the transfer, and whether it passed through Las Vegas to the National security test site 65 miles north of the city.

The senator, Horsford, and Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., have requested a classified briefing about the route trucks moved the plutonium through Nevada, and why National Nuclear Security Administration officials failed to disclose the shipment to a federal judge in Reno weighing the state’s request for an injunction to stop it.

Following the Thursday meeting with officials from NNSA, Cortez Masto said the agency is “still playing games” and hiding behind a cloak of secrecy about the movement of plutonium through Southern Nevada.

The DOE in documents released in July 2018 said the plutonium from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina was to be packaged in canisters and sent by unmarked, specially equipment tractor-trailer trucks to the Nevada security site and the Pantex Plant in Texas near Amarillo, Texas.

Horsford, meanwhile, spearheaded a delegation letter sent to NNSA seeking detailed answers to questions about the shipping, routes and timeline, with a deadline of Feb. 10.

The congressman, whose district includes the Nevada security site, said the disclosure by NNSA in court documents this week that the plutonium had been shipped prior to the state’s litigation to stop it was a shock to his constituents.

“Families across my district woke up to the troubling news that hazardous materials were transported through our communities,” Horsford said.

The letter was signed by Cortez Masto and Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen, Titus and Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev.. Titus, the dean of the state’s congressional delegation, worked with the state to stop the transfer last year.

“I know from experience that you can’t trust the Department of Energy, especially under the Trump administration, but we must do all we can do to provide transparency and get at the truth in order to protect the people of Nevada,” Titus said.

Lee called the federal government’s deception in court appearances “very troubling.”

The lone Republican in the delegation, Rep. Mark Amodei, planned to meet with officials from the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and later with DOE officials about the plutonium transfer.

DOE and NNSA were under a federal court order in South Carolina to move the plutonium from the Savannah River Site.

A statement by the DOE released Thursday said it was “inaccurate” to say Nevada officials were surprised by the shipment of plutonium because the department publicly announced their intentions in the July 2019 analysis.

That analysis, however, prompted Nevada to file a lawsuit seeking an injunction to block the shipment on Nov. 30, 2018.

And a hearing on that legal motion in Reno was held in January, where government lawyers failed to disclose that the shipment had already occurred, even when District Judge Miranda Du asked that no transfer take place until her ruling on the injunction.

“That is the most outrageous part of this,” said Cortez Masto, a former Nevada attorney general.

The letter to DOE from the delegation seeks information about the department’s decision to transport the material to Nevada, a detailed timeline of the shipment campaign and a report about the future of NNSA projects and hazardous materials shipped to the site.

The letter was sent to NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, who was present at Cortez Masto’s meeting in the Senate Russell Office Building on Thursday.

In Carson City, Gov. Steve Sisolak and Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford are exploring a litigation strategy to either block future transfers of plutonium, force the federal government to remove the most recent shipment, or seek sanctions against the government for misleading the state and federal court in a judicial hearing.

“This secret shipment of nuclear materials is another example of why the U.S. Conference of Mayors is against the transport of these deadly materials through our cities, towns and neighborhoods,” Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said in a statement. “Mayors across this country are united in opposition to these transports because the chance for something to go wrong as these shipments travel on crumbling infrastructure is too great a risk for our communities.”

Clark County Manager Yolanda King in a letter obtained by the Review-Journal that was sent to DOE Secretary Rick Perry requesting a face-to-face meeting with local leaders and DOE officials so federal “agencies can fully grasp the issues and the consequences of your most recent actions.”

DOE is under a federal court order in South Carolina to remove plutonium from the Savannah River Site and argued that it complied with that order with the transfer of plutonium to Nevada.

Information about the plutonium remains classified, but DOE and NNSA have publicly said the shipment to Nevada was necessary.

The government plans to store the plutonium there until it can repackage it and ship it to a facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where it can be used to produce missiles.

In the letter to NNSA, the congressional delegation has asked that if the information they seek cannot be released to them, that private classified briefings be held with members to discuss the plutonium shipment to Nevada.

A separate letter from Cortez Masto and Rosen was sent Friday to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, also seeking a classified briefing if necessary about the decision process in shipping plutonium to Nevada and Texas, and when the federal judge in Reno was notified about the shipments.

“The decisions and subsequent actions made by you and officials under your leadership have caused potentially irreparable damage to a previously-collaborative state-federal relationship,” the senators wrote Perry.

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

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