On Wednesday, a lawyer for the Department of Energy (DOE) filed a notice in a federal lawsuit saying that the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) had secretly shipped half a metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to a national security site in Nevada without the latter state’s knowledge.
The new information surprised and angered many Nevada politicians because it was disclosed as part of a federal lawsuit that Nevada brought against the US government in November, seeking an injunction to prevent the NNSA from shipping the plutonium to the Silver State. The federal government announced its intentions to move the plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada in the summer, and on November 30, lawyers for the state asked the district court to stop the plans.
On Wednesday, DOE lawyer Bruce Diamond wrote (PDF) that the plutonium had already been moved, rendering Nevada’s request for injunction moot. “In order to provide security for its shipments of these kinds of materials, DOE normally will not release information about the status of the shipment(s) until sometime after the shipping ‘campaign’ is concluded,” Diamond wrote.
The statement continued:
Because sufficient time has now elapsed after conclusion of this campaign, DOE may now publicly state that it has completed all shipment of plutonium (approximately 1⁄2 metric ton) to Nevada pursuant to its efforts to comply with the South Carolina US District Court order… Although the precise date that this occurred cannot be revealed for reasons of operational security, it can be stated that this was done before November 2018, prior to the initiation of the litigation.
Dueling District Courts
Diamond didn’t specify which “South Carolina US District Court order” the US government was complying with when it moved the plutonium shipment, but the order appears to be from December 2017 (PDF). At the time, a District Court judge ordered DOE Secretary Rick Perry “to remove from South Carolina one metric ton of defense plutonium.”
The injunction was granted on the basis that Congress had originally directed the DOE to complete the construction of a Mixed Oxides (MOX) fuel facility near the Savannah River nuclear plant in Georgia by January 1, 2014, or else the DOE would have to remove “not less than 1 metric ton of defense plutonium or defense plutonium materials” by January 1, 2016.
As Ars wrote in May of last year, the MOX facility would have processed weapons-grade plutonium with uranium oxides to create fuel for the Georgia nuclear plant. But the facility’s spiraling costs made it politically unpopular with both the Trump and the Obama administrations, although local politicians fought to keep it for the hundreds of potential high-paying jobs that would open up in the area.
After years of disputes, legislation was passed in February 2018 that made it possible for the Trump administration to pursue mothballing the MOX facility and disposing of the weapons-grade plutonium.
The DOE appears to have been reluctant to move the plutonium in question. The department appealed the South Carolina District Court’s order, but the appeal failed a few months later, and the DOE appears to have begun preparations to move the metric ton of plutonium (PDF).
The Department of Energy did not respond to Ars’ request for comment on the matter.
Nevada was alerted over the summer of 2018 that the DOE would ship part of that metric ton of plutonium to its Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), which is 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. (Another portion is scheduled to be sent to a site in Texas called the Pantex site, northeast of Amarillo.) Nevada contested this move (PDF), and in November, it asked a District Court to halt this plutonium shipment. The state said the DOE hadn’t conducted the proper environmental reviews to move and store the toxic material at the Nevada site.
The state’s complaint says that the plutonium is set to be staged “indefinitely” at the NNSS before eventually being moved to Los Alamos National Laboratory for nuclear weapons production. This would open up Nevada’s desert environment to potential contamination during flash floods, earthquakes, or accidents in transit. When the complaint was filed, Nevada officials did not know that the plutonium had already been moved.
On Wednesday, Nevada’s Democratic governor reacted to the same-day filing with anger. “This afternoon, @NevadaAG Ford and I held a press conference to reiterate our outrage at @ENERGY’s unacceptable deception,” Governor Sisolak tweeted. “They lied to the State of Nevada, misled a federal court, and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment.”
In a further statement, the governor continued: “The Department led the State of Nevada to believe that they were engaging in good-faith negotiations with us regarding a potential shipment of weapons-grade plutonium, only to reveal that those negotiations were a sham all along.” A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to Ars’ request for comment on whether those negotiations began before or after the state of Nevada filed its complaint to stop DOE from moving the plutonium.
Much of the animosity toward the federal government appears to be linked to the handling of Yucca Mountain, a potential storage site for nuclear waste that many Nevadans oppose but which the Trump administration has vowed to revisit. In a statement, US representative Dina Titus (D-Nev.) said, “If the Trump administration thinks that making such a reckless decision under the shroud of secrecy will allow them to move forward with Yucca Mountain, they are mistaken.”