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EDITORIAL: A proxy fight over the Yucca Mountain repository

Nevada politicians shifted indignation into high gear Wednesday upon learning that the federal government had secretly shipped plutonium to the state without their knowledge.

“They lied to the state of Nevada,” thundered Gov. Steve Sisolak, “misled a federal court and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment.”

But while his anger is understandable, a little perspective is in order.

The development was revealed in a recent federal court filing by the National Nuclear Security Administration acknowledging that, sometime prior to November, the Department of Energy sent half a metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina to the Nevada National Security Site, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The transfer of the material was the result of a court ruling in May after the federal government failed to meet a timetable for constructing a facility intended to repurpose weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear plants. The DOE subsequently announced in August that it had approved a plan to meet the court order by moving plutonium to Nevada and a site in Texas.

Nevada officials filed suit late last year to prevent the shipment. Little did state officials know, however, that the plutonium had already made its way to Nevada.

The DOE argues that it kept the move secret for national security reasons, and there’s something to that. The government can’t very well alert bad guys to the movement of a substance that could be deadly in the wrong hands. But there’s absolutely no reason the DOE couldn’t have postponed plans for the shipments until after Nevada’s legal action had been litigated.

But while energy officials clearly acted in bad faith, it’s worth noting that the federal judge assigned to Nevada’s case — Reno-based U.S. District Judge Miranda Du — denied the state’s request for an injunction this week. She wrote that the state’s claims of irreparable harm to lands, the environment and Nevada residents as a result of the shipment is “merely a theoretical possibility at this juncture.”

Indeed, let’s remember that plutonium has been handled for decades at the Nevada National Security Site, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site. The substance has also been transported hundreds of times without incident. Nevada residents are not in any danger.

This controversy is, in reality, a proxy fight over Yucca Mountain. State officials are worried that acquiescing on the plutonium shipment will clear the way for future transfers and set a bad precedent in their 30-year-old fight to fend off the nuclear waste repository. They’re correct, and no doubt they will follow up with more lawsuits. Fine. But as long as the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act remains on the books, Nevada — regardless of who is in the White House — will remain a convenient target.

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