WASHINGTON — Energy Secretary Rick Perry said he provided a timeline to remove weapons-grade plutonium from the Nevada National Security Site and agreed to brief the state’s U.S. senators on milestones related to that removal.
Perry and Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, who heads the National Nuclear Security Administration, toured the Nevada security site on Friday with Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen.
The senators and other state officials raised concerns earlier this year about the unannounced shipment of one-half metric ton of plutonium into the state.
Perry, in a statement released by his office, said that during the tour with the senators, “we discussed the timeline for removing the material from Nevada.”
“Administrator Gordon-Hagerty and I reiterated our commitment to begin removal in 2021 and brief (Cortez Masto and Rosen) on major milestones related to that removal,” Perry said.
In a joint statement released after the tour on Friday, the Nevada senators said that while they appreciated Perry’s engagement, “we strongly reiterated that we would be ensuring he and his department honor their agreement to remove the weapons-grade plutonium from Nevada.”
“With Secretary Perry, we made it clear that the DOE must take the necessary steps to productively engage with state leaders and restore trust with Nevadans,” the senators said.
Those necessary steps include regular briefings by the National Nuclear Security Administration on the status and progress of the transfer of the plutonium, the senators said.
Plutonium shipped before lawsuit
The Department of Energy was under federal court order to remove one metric ton of plutonium from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina when a facility in that state to convert the nuclear weapons material into fuel was scrapped.
Last August, the Energy Department announced it would move half of the material to the Nevada security site and half to the Pantex Plant in Texas until the material could be accepted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Nevada filed a lawsuit in federal court in Reno last November seeking an injunction to stop the shipment. The National Nuclear Security Administrtion notified the federal court and Nevada in January that the shipment had taken place before the state’s lawsuit was filed.
Raising additional concern about the plutonium storage came with a letter from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, dated March 21, which questioned safety evaluations and system upgrades at the Device Assembly Facility at the security site due to earthquake activity.
“The facility continues to operate without accounting for the increase in seismic hazard and without evaluating whether the credited structures, systems and components can perform their safety function during and after a seismic event,” Bruce Hamilton, chairman of the board wrote in the letter.
Perry, and the Nevada security site, said the facility is sound and the plutonium there is safely stored.
Cortez Masto, however, placed a hold on Senate confirmation of Trump administration nominees to the Department of Energy until she received assurances that the plutonium would be moved.
She reached a deal with Perry earlier this month to move the plutonium out of the state with assurances no further shipments would come to Nevada. She agreed to drop her hold on nominees.
Perry sought the tour with the senators at the facility, which he said gave them an opportunity to see classified and non-classified work at the Nevada security site which employees 3,000 workers with an economic benefit of $900 million annually.
The secretary said the Nevada security site workforce also supports science, technical and engineering programs at universities and colleges in the state.