RENO — The U.S. Department of Energy disclosed Wednesday that it has already shipped weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to a nuclear security site in Nevada despite the state’s protests.
The Justice Department notified a federal judge in Reno that the government trucked in half of the radioactive material that it intends to store at the site 70 miles north of Las Vegas. Nevada had filed a request for an injunction to block the move in November.
Department lawyers said in a nine-page filing that the previously classified information about the shipment from South Carolina can be disclosed now because enough time has passed to protect national security. They didn’t specify when the one-half metric ton of plutonium was transferred.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said he’s “beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception.” He said he’s working with Nevada’s congressional delegation to fight back against the U.S. government’s “reckless disregard” for the safety of Nevadans.
Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen called the move “deceitful and unethical,” and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, also a Nevada Democrat, said she would demand department officials come to her office on Thursday to explain how they made the “reckless decision” in such “bad faith.”
U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du in Reno is considering the state’s request for an injunction to block the Energy Department’s plans announced in August to ship a full metric ton of plutonium to Nevada from South Carolina, where a federal judge previously issued an order that the plutonium be removed from a Savannah River site by January 2020.
Nevada argues the DOE has failed to adequately study the potential dangers of moving the material to an area that is subject to flash floods and earthquakes, and that the state’s lands and groundwater may already be contaminated with radioactive materials.
The energy department defended its decision in court on Jan. 17. Its lawyers argued at the time it doesn’t have to disclose top-secret details of the shipment plans because of national security.
Du expressed sympathy at times for the state’s argument during the evidentiary hearing, but declined to immediately grant the state’s request and indicated she wouldn’t rule until February.
“I hope the government doesn’t ship plutonium pending a ruling by this court,” she said at the time.
Sisolak said Wednesday the energy department led the state to believe it was engaged in good-faith negotiations over the plutonium “only to reveal that those negotiations were a sham all along.”
“They lied to the state of Nevada, misled a federal court and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment,” he said.
Monica Moazez, spokeswoman for the Nevada’s attorney general’s office, which is leading the legal fight, said in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday that the state didn’t immediately know what the next step would be in court.
Meanwhile, the states of Nevada and South Carolina are continuing to argue over where the legal challenge should be heard. Each said in briefs filed in Reno last week that theirs is the proper venue to argue over the fate of the plutonium.
Lawyers for South Carolina say the previous order issued in December 2017 directing that the metric ton of plutonium be removed by the end of this year makes it clear the South Carolina court retains jurisdiction.
“Nevada’s interests fail to outweigh South Carolina’s interest and substantial public interest in having the matter decided by the court already handling and most familiar with the facts and issues in the case,” they said in a filing last week.
A substantial part of the government’s efforts to remove the plutonium “have occurred and will occur in South Carolina,” John Desmond wrote on behalf of South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Nevada’s lawyers countered that the disposal site isn’t located in South Carolina.
“The environmental impacts of the proposed action here will be almost entirely felt in Nevada,” they said.
Experts testifying on behalf of Nevada said the material likely would have to pass directly through Las Vegas on the way to the Nevada Nuclear National Security Site. They fear an accident could permanently harm an area that is home to 2.2 million residents and hosts more than 40 million tourists a year.
The Energy Department wants to temporarily store the material at the Nevada site and the government’s Pantex Plant in Texas, two facilities that already handle and process plutonium. The department says it would be sent by 2027 to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico or another unnamed facility.
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