Nevada, Energy Department settle fight over secret plutonium
RENO, Nev. (AP) — Nevada ended a two-year legal battle Friday with the U.S. Energy Department over the secret shipment of weapons-grade plutonium to a site near Las Vegas.
The state’s lawyers said they would drop their lawsuit after the federal government agreed to remove the highly radioactive material already trucked there and abandon any future plans to send more.
The settlement agreement was disclosed in court papers filed in U.S. District Court in Reno and signed by Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford and lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department.
Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement it was a significant victory in the effort to “keep weapons grade material out of our state.”
Nevada said the clandestine shipment of one-half metric ton (1,100 pounds) of the plutonium over its objections from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina in 2018 amounted to a “secret plutonium smuggling operation.” The U.S. government argued secrecy was necessitated by national security concerns.
Details of the settlement were not disclosed in the court filing. But the statement released by Sisolak and Ford, both Democrats, said the Energy Department will begin removing the plutonium next year and complete removal no later than Dec. 31, 2026.
Most importantly, they said, the agreement states that none of the more than 10 metric tons (22,000 pounds) of additional surplus plutonium the Energy Department may be forced to remove from South Carolina in the next 18 months will be sent to Nevada.
The Energy Department agreed to notify Nevada if those plans change within the next 30 days so the state can resume its previous legal challenge, the statement said.
“While I’m hopeful this agreement is the basis for a stronger and more collaborative relationship with the Department of Energy, my office stands ready to protect the interests of Nevadans,” Ford said.
The state filed suit in 2018 after the Energy Department disclosed it had secretly trucked the plutonium to a specialized facility at the vast Nevada National Security Site, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. The site was used to conduct nuclear weapons tests form 1945 to 1992.
U.S. Judge Miranda Du in Reno refused the state’s repeated requests to declare the shipments illegal, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Nevada’s appeal last August.
Nevada and the department notified Du in March and again in May they had reached a tentative settlement agreement but needed more time to formalize the details.
Ford said Friday the framework for the deal stemmed from assurances Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, received from then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April 2019 — and his successor Secretary Dan Brouillette seven moths later — that the department would expedite removal of the plutonium from Nevada and suspend plans for any future shipments.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, the dean of the delegation who has led a separate fight for decades to prevent construction of a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain near the test site, said the Trump administration tried to “mislead the courts and secretly dump radioactive plutonium in our backyard.”
“Time and time again the Trump administration has treated our state as a trash can for the nation’s waste. Today’s announcement is a major step toward reversing the damaging inflicted upon our state and protecting the health and safety of Nevadans,” Titus said Friday.
The Energy Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment late Friday.
The “stipulation to dismiss” filed in federal court was signed by lawyers for the c representing the Energy Department.
This story corrects an early version to show the metric conversion of one-half metric ton is 1,100 pounds, not 600 pounds.
By SCOTT SONNER