Energy Department Defends Secret Nuclear Shipments to Nevada

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said Energy Department leaders "have caused potentially irreparable damage to a previously collaborative state-federal relationship." Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said Energy Department leaders "have caused potentially irreparable damage to a previously collaborative state-federal relationship." Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The Energy Department is sticking to its guns in defending its nuclear materials transfers following a surprise revelation last month that angered most of the lawmakers and state officials in the destination state of Nevada.

It’s the latest wrinkle in a decades-old fight over the broader question of whether the nation should embrace more nuclear energy and bury the toxic waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

In late January, department’s National Nuclear Security Administration published a Notice of Information revealing it was following a court order and transferring a half-ton shipment of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to Energy’s Nevada National Security Site.

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All but one member of the Nevada congressional delegation fired off angry statements accusing the department of ignoring transparency practices following months of staff briefings on the issue.

“We write to you today to express our continued outrage at your department’s breach of trust enacted by your department with the State of Nevada,” wrote Nevada’s two Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen. “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. It is imperative for you and your department to course-correct in order to avoid a complete erosion of public trust.”

The senators demanded an array of internal Energy Department documents and said they opposed “the storage of plutonium currently in our state, the potential shipment of plutonium to be stored in our state at a future date, and the storage of high-level nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel.”

Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., called the move “deceptive and dangerous. Nevada officials were deceived by sham ‘negotiations’ while the safety of millions was jeopardized, as was the environment and economy of dozens of states. Nevada is not the nation’s nuclear dumping ground. Period.”

She backed subsequent efforts by Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to reverse the plan.

Rep. Steve Horsford, D-Nev., added, “Our state is not a dumping ground for the nation’s hazardous waste, and we have no intention of letting it become one.”

The same day as the surprise announcement, a U.S. District Judge in Nevada struck down a suit brought in November by the governor seeking a preliminary injunction challenging the prospective move under the National Environmental Policy Act. “Nevada cannot demonstrate the likelihood of irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary injunctive relief or that the balance of hardships tips in its favor,” wrote Judge Miranda Du. “It is therefore ordered that Nevada’s motion for preliminary injunction is denied.”

This Tuesday, an Energy spokesman sent Government Executive a statement challenging the accuracy of the lawmakers’ claims. The National Nuclear Security Administration “is committed to protecting the health, safety, and security of the public at all of our sites as we conduct our important national security missions,” the department stated, noting that the recent plutonium shipments were undertaken to comply with the South Carolina court’s order.

“It is inaccurate to state that the members of the Nevada delegation were not informed of this movement,” the statement continued. “The Department of Energy was as transparent as operational security would permit. Efforts were made to ensure that Members of Congress representing the states involved were notified of the planned movement ahead of time, as early as August 2018, when NNSA publicly released the plan in a Supplement Analysis. Since then, NNSA confirmed that it was actively engaged in removing one metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada, Texas, and New Mexico.”

Energy also challenged the statement characterizing the material as waste. “This material is essential for maintenance of the U.S. weapons stockpile, and is handled with the highest standards for safety and security,” it said. “NNSA routinely ships this type of material between its sites as part of our national security missions and has done so safely and securely for decades.”

The Nevada delegation was subsequently briefed by department officials in a classified setting. But to little avail. “The Department of Energy has lied to Nevadans and their elected representatives for decades, and I have no reason to believe that will change,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., in a Feb. 14 release. “In today’s meeting about the National Nuclear Security Administration’s unchecked and unethical decision to secretly ship plutonium to Nevada, I learned nothing new. Instead of answering my questions directly, the Trump administration officials repeated meaningless platitudes. I will continue to work with Gov. Sisolak and the Nevada delegation to hold the DoE’s feet to the fire and protect our state and its people.”

Titus, a political scientist who has written a book on atomic power, plans to “find a way forward as a united front,” a senior staffer to the delegation told Government Executive on Thursday.

Rep. Mark Amodei, the sole Republican in the Nevada delegation, has not joined the front in opposing use of Nevada sites to store nuclear waste. “While some of my colleagues in the delegation have successfully managed to slow the project through the congressional appropriations process, I do not believe it is a ‘dead’ issue and think it is more likely the repository will eventually come to fruition through a sound scientific process over time,” his website says.  “I do not believe Yucca Mountain should become a simple dumping site for the nation's nuclear waste.  I believe the administration and Department of Energy should keep funding for the project, while Congress works with the DoE to make the location a bastion of nuclear research and reprocessing.”

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