Updated September 16, 2022 - 4:24 pm
WASHINGTON – A half-metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium secretly shipped into Nevada has been removed four years early under federal court order and an agreement reached by U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, officials said Friday.
Cortez Masto, D-Nev., first announced the removal of the plutonium, stored at the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas.
She was notified by the National Nuclear Security Administration late Friday.
National Nuclear Security Administrator Jill Hruby told Cortez Masto by telephone about the completion of the removal, according to the senator’s office.
Attempts to contact the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration for comment were not immediately returned.
The NNSA shipped the plutonium from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to Nevada in 2019 under federal court order.
Nevada officials, while notified it would happen, were incensed when efforts to stop the transfer through federal courts became moot after the Department of Energy disclosed the plutonium had already been shipped into the state.
Four years ahead of schedule
“When I heard that the Trump administration secretly shipped weapons-grade plutonium to our state, I acted immediately to ensure it was removed,” Cortez Masto said in a statement.
Cortez Masto also secured in writing a pledge by Perry not to send any more plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada.
“I’m proud to announce the removal has been completed four years ahead of schedule,” Cortez Masto said.
A federal judge ordered the Department of Energy to remove weapons grade plutonium from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina after a facility to turn the radioactive material into fuel for nuclear power plants was terminated.
Some of the material was sent to the Nevada facility, and some to the Pantex Plant in Texas until pits to accommodate the material at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico were completed, according to NNSA.
The material from Nevada now has been shipped to Los Alamos, a congressional aide confirmed.
Secret shipment from South Carolina draws ire
Former Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, was furious that the Energy Department shipped the plutonium to Nevada when the state in May 2019 had notified the federal government of its intent to seek an injunction to prevent the transfer.
Sandoval directed then-state Attorney General Adam Laxalt to file a lawsuit in federal court in Reno to block the shipment.
But the lawsuit was dismissed after Energy Department lawyers in 2020 disclosed in court papers that the shipment had already occurred, making the state’s lawsuit moot.
Gov. Steve Sisolak and state Attorney General Aaron Ford, both Democrats, filed another lawsuit and won a ruling that would force the federal government to eventually remove the plutonium.
The Nevada congressional delegation supported efforts to remove the weapons grade plutonium, despite assurances from federal officials that the material stored at NNSS north of Las Vegas was a secure site and posed little danger to the environment and nearby communities.
But the danger of exposure to the materials prompted the federal judge to order the plutonium moved from South Carolina.
The secret shipping of the plutonium, because of federal national security concerns, drew the ire of Nevada officials of both major political parties who accused Perry and the Energy Department of lying to the state about its intent.
Sisolak called it “beyond outrage,” and Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., sought briefings from Energy Department officials about the shipments.
U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., the state’s foremost elected expert on nuclear history in Nevada, called the Energy Department action reckless and sought relief through removal. U.S. Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford, whose district includes NNSS, also were angered by the shipping of the material along public highways and roads.
U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., also grilled federal officials about the covert shipments of the radioactive material into the state.
The shipment heightened tensions between Nevada and the Trump administration, which also sought to open Yucca Mountain as a permanent nuclear waste repository, just 60 miles north of Las Vegas.