Abby Johnson: Secret plutonium shipment blessing and curse
February 13, 2019
The Department of Energy's secret plutonium shipment to Nevada is both a blessing and a curse for our state.
Plutonium is essential for making nuclear bombs. It's also the nuclear material with a half life of 24,500 years that makes long-term disposal of high level radioactive waste so challenging. DOE shipped a half ton of plutonium from South Carolina in 2018 without notifying Nevada officials. It was so stealthy Nevada officials were in talks with DOE and in court to block the shipment — that had already occurred.
DOE planned to use the plutonium at its Savannah River site for a project that was eventually canceled. South Carolina sued to get the plutonium out of its state. There was a federal court order. DOE complied, and as we now know, trucked the material to its Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), formerly known as the Nevada Test Site.
Nevada has had a love-hate relationship with DOE and its predecessors, the Atomic Energy Commission and its short-lived successor ERDA. Nevada was the site of above and underground nuclear weapons tests (yes plutonium was involved) from 1951 to 1992. The atomic bomb tests propelled radioactive particles into the air that rained down on people, livestock and land north and east of NTS. Las Vegas wasn't affected because the AEC made sure prevailing winds blew away from Las Vegas before pushing the button.
While the government claimed nuclear testing was safe, rural Nevadans and southern Utahans became downwinders, subject to the immediate and long term effects of radiation exposure including plutonium. Ultimately Congress passed a compensation act which recognizes in dollars the injustice done to those who died or are dying of certain cancers caused by atomic testing.
But at the same time, Nevada welcomed the high-paying jobs and economic boost from federal funding. Nevada was doing its part for national security and defense, and reaping economic benefits for its sacrifice. (The film Atomic Café documents those heady days).
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When the federal government began looking for a spot to dispose of nuclear fuel from commercial power plants and its own high-level defense waste, NTS seemed to be a natural fit because the land was already so polluted from testing. It looked to Yucca Mountain, not previously radiated, mostly on BLM land off the western edge of the Test Site. By 1987 the state of Nevada's opposition to a repository solidified when Congress passed the politically charged "Screw Nevada" bill to designate Yucca Mountain as the only site to study for the repository.
For 30-plus years, the State of Nevada has managed to fend off the repository. The Yucca site has many flaws. DOE has argued they can be overcome with engineering, now and in the future. Forcing an unwanted federal project on a state has resonated with Nevadans and others, including the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. Consent, trust and confidence, and the need for independent management of a repository project were cornerstones of the Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations early in this decade.
The current administration supports a repository at Yucca Mountain, but the project is on hold, pending congressional funding to support licensing hearings by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The latest move by DOE to move plutonium without notifying Nevada officials is bold but not surprising. The not-so-subtle message? If you keep opposing us on Yucca Mountain, we'll do everything in our power, which is considerable, to force more nuclear material upon you in the name of national security.
As evidenced by its most recent nuclear escapade, DOE has yet to recognize public trust is essential to implementing disposal plans in the Silver State. Nevada's nuclear issues now span generations. As Nevada has grown and changed during that time, the shadow of a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository looms even larger. It's encouraging the new governor and attorney general have joined forces to seek justice in the courts. DOE's brazen action is an opportunity for new conversations about Nevada's nuclear history, the reasons why the state of Nevada is opposed to the repository, and what citizens can do.
Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.