The Device Assembly Facility. Image: DOE
Nevada officials say they are “outraged” by the Trump administration’s “reckless decision” to secretly ship 1,100 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium to a site north of Las Vegas, against the express wishes of state representatives.Governor Steve Sisolak called the move an “unacceptable deception” that exposed the “sham” of the state’s ongoing negotiations with the Department of Energy (DOE) over the transfer of plutonium from South Carolina. Nevada Senator Jacky Rosen called the decision “deceitful and unethical” and said it jeopardized “the health and safety of thousands of Nevadans and Americans who live in close proximity to shipment routes," according to The New York Times.
A federal judge ordered the transfer in 2017, but the move was challenged in court when Nevada sued the federal government to block it last November. Unbeknownst to Nevada officials, the DOE had already shipped the plutonium to Nevada, according to legal filings released Wednesday. Nevada officials were not notified because the transfer was classified due to its implications for national security, the DOE said.
“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,” said Bruce Diamond, general counsel for the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, in the filing.The plutonium is being held at the Nevada National Security Site near Yucca Mountain, in the complex’s Device Assembly Facility (DAF).This region has a rich tradition of anti-nuclear activism: Public figures like astronomer Carl Sagan and actor Martin Sheen were among the thousands of people arrested at the height of the local protest movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Decades later, there is strong bipartisan opposition in Nevada to any expansion of the site’s role as a repository for spent nuclear material. In 2009, President Obama backed off of long-term plans to develop storage capabilities at Yucca Mountain. The Trump administration signaled its intention to reverse that decision last year by including $120 million in the DOE budget to prepare for new shipments.
Nevada’s November lawsuit against the transfer is now regarded as moot by the US Justice Department, the Associated Press reported, and the plutonium may remain at the DAF for nearly a decade before another planned transfer to New Mexico.Despite assurances from the DOE that there will be no other imminent shipments, the state’s elected officials argue the lack of transparency over the move demands new preventative measures. Governor Sisolak said the state is pursuing “any and all legal remedies” against the federal government, including contempt of court orders.“They lied to the State of Nevada, misled a federal court, and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment,” Sisolak said in a statement. “My administration is working with our federal delegation, and we will use the full force of every legal tool available to fight back against the federal government’s reckless disregard for the safety of our state.”Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the plutonium shipment as nuclear waste. It does not far under that definition according to the DOE. The article has been updated to reflect this.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.