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Weapons-grade plutonium secretly sent to facility north of Las Vegas

Updated January 30, 2019 - 9:39 pm

WASHINGTON — Weapons-grade plutonium was secretly shipped from South Carolina to a federal facility north of Las Vegas before November without the consent of state officials who filed a federal lawsuit to stop it, the general counsel for the National Nuclear Security Administration revealed Wednesday.

The secret shipment of one-half metric ton of the bomb-making material was made to comply with a U.S. federal district court order in South Carolina, Bruce Diamond, the NNSA counsel, disclosed in a court filing.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said he was “beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception” from the Department of Energy.

“They lied to the state of Nevada, misled a federal court, and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment,” Sisolak said in a statement from Carson City.

Later, at a news conference, Sisolak said the state had filed for a temporary restraining order to prevent the Energy Department from shipping any more plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site, located about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

“We’re also seeking any and all legal remedies to us against the Department of Energy, who misled officials,” he said.

The Department of Energy and NNSA said in the court filing that the shipment was classified to provide security. Some information was declassified Wednesday to notify Nevada, which filed a lawsuit in November to stop the move.

Diamond said in the filing the shipment was made “before November 2018, prior to the initiation of the litigation.”

Injunction denied

A hearing on Nevada’s lawsuit was held earlier this month in federal court in Reno. U.S. District Judge Miranda Du did not rule on Nevada’s request for a preliminary injunction at that time, but said she hoped the government would not ship plutonium pending her ruling.

Hours after the Energy Department disclosed that the plutonium was already in Nevada, Du denied the preliminary injunction to stop the shipment.

Du wrote in her ruling that Nevada’s claims of irreparable harm to lands, environment and citizens is “merely a theoretical possibility at this juncture.”

Du added that the hardships posed to the federal government in not complying with the South Carolina court order “outweighs the hardships to Nevada based on likely speculative harms.”

Du has yet to rule on the request for a restraining order that Nevada filed Wednesday.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said she will be briefed by Energy and NNSA officials on Thursday about the secret shipment. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., also is seeking briefings about the transfer from state and Energy officials.

“It’s unconscionable,” Cortez Masto said, that Energy and NNSA officials “went into federal court in Nevada and failed to disclose that they shipped weapons grade plutonium into our backyards.”

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., accused the Trump administration of making “a reckless decision under the shroud of secrecy” with unchecked and unethical activity.

Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford, whose congressional district includes the Nevada National Security Site, also registered complaints about the secret shipment.

Horsford said he is seeking a congressional oversight hearing in the House on the plutonium shipment.

Health, environmental concerns

Nevada cited health and environmental concerns in its motion to halt the Trump administration from shipping one metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada.

It argued that shipping the weapons-grade plutonium through Nevada posed a risk of exposure to its population and environment, including water sources.

It also cited concerns about shipping the bomb-making material on highways.

“I don’t want Interstate 11 to become the plutonium expressway,” Robert Halstead, executive director for the Nevada governor’s Agency for Nuclear Projects and Nuclear Waste Project Office, said after the state filed its lawsuit.

In the filing Wednesday, DOE and NNSA did not disclose the route of the shipments, or the states that the plutonium traveled through as it was transported by truck. It is unknown if the material passed through Las Vegas, or traveled through Northern Nevada.

“The shipment of this large amount of plutonium on our nation’s highways has no justification beyond pleasing the federal court in South Carolina, and due to the environmental and security risks it posed should have never taken place,” said Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch, a watchdog group opposed to the move.

“We hope that this shipment concludes the campaign to transfer plutonium” from South Carolina to Nevada, Clements said.

As for what becomes of the plutonium now in Nevada, Sisolak said it was unclear.

“We do not know,” he said. “We’re exploring the options available to us about the shipment that’s already arrived.”

S.C. court order

The Energy Department is under federal court order in South Carolina to move a metric ton from the site in compliance with national environmental laws.

In it lawsuit opposing the transfer, Nevada claimed the Trump administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 by failing to conduct an environmental impact study to determine risks for shipping the high-grade material in 35-gallon drums.

DOE disputed that claim, saying it complied with environmental laws in its assessment of the transfer.

In addition, the state claims that DOE failed to look at five alternative sites, including those in New Mexico, Texas and Tennessee, before selecting Nevada to store the material.

The lawsuit was filed by then-state Attorney General Adam Laxalt at the direction of former Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The state argued that once the material is moved, “Nevada will forever lose the ability to formally comment upon safety and environmental concerns related to the shipments.”

The NNSA claimed the material would be temporarily stored at the DOE-operated site north of Las Vegas until it could be moved to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico or another site.

The NNSA has shipped bomb-making materials between its sites before safely, according to the agency.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter. Carson City Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead contributed to this report.

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