Nevada Asks Ninth Circuit to Block Plutonium Shipments

March 6, 2019 by Dan McCue
A sign cautions employees of the potential radiation risks at the Nevada National Security Site, previously called the Nevada Test Site. The area is now maintained by the U.S. Department of Energy. (Jessica Boehm/Cronkite News Service/TNS)

Nevada is asking the Ninth Circuit to block the Trump administration from making further shipments of weapons-grade plutonium into the state, contending the White House is intent to turn it into “the nation’s radioactive dump.”

In a filing in the San Francisco-based appeals court on Monday, lawyers with the Nevada attorney general’s office contend the administration recklessly decided to move radioactive material to the site 70 miles north of Las Vegas despite warnings from the U.S. Energy Department about the dangers of doing so.

The appeal comes two months after the federal government revealed it had already secretly moved about a half metric ton of plutonium to Nevada from a storage facility known as the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

At the time, the attorney general’s office was in federal court in Nevada, believing it still had time to head off any such shipment.

As it happened, the judge hearing the case, U.S. District Judge Miranda Du, rejected the state’s plea to prevent the transfer of material the same day the secret shipment came to light in a nine-page court filing on behalf of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

In it, the agency said the previously classified information about the shipment from South Carolina could be disclosed because enough time had passed to protect national security. It didn’t say when the one-half metric ton of plutonium was transferred.

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford now wants the Ninth Circuit to overturn Judge Du’s ruling.

He is arguing that the U.S. Energy Department itself has long maintained that the Savannah River facility was the only site in the country with the expertise to receive and store any significant amount of plutonium.

Further, he says, the “stealth” shipment, which occurred sometime before November 30, was underhanded and unnecessarily increased Nevada residents’ risk of life-threatening radiation exposure.

The Savannah River Site in South Carolina was built in the 1950s to refine nuclear materials for deployment in nuclear weapons. As its name implies, it is located near the Savannah River, about 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia.

In December 2017, after a protracted legal battle, a federal judge ordered the U.S. Energy Department to remove at least 1 metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium out of South Carolina by 2020.

In an effort to satisfy that order, the National Nuclear Security Administration considered shipping the material to one of three locations, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

But it ultimately declared the Nevada National Security Site was the prime candidate for indefinitely housing the material.

According to the state of Nevada, it was as if “DOE’s previous capacity, safety, security and surveillance concerns magically disappeared.”

A representative of the U.S. Energy Department could not be reached for comment. The Trump administration has until April 1 to respond to Nevada’s filing.

Nevada

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