Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 23 No. 5
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February 01, 2019

NNSA Sent Plutonium to Nevada Last Year, Before State Sued to Prevent Shipment

By Dan Leone

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) “before November 2018” moved roughly half a ton of weapon-usable plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site from the Savannah River Site, in Aiken, S.C., the agency said Wednesday in a bombshell court filing.

The announcement caught Nevada’s governor and congressional delegation by surprise, prompting an outpouring of online fist-shaking and quick meetings with NNSA officials in Washington.

The plutonium is part of a 1-metric-ton cache a federal judge in South Carolina ordered the NNSA to move out of that state by Jan. 1, 2020. The agency plans to keep about half of that plutonium at the Nevada National Security Site’s Device Assembly Facility into the next decade, according to the filing.

Nevada thought plutonium shipments from Savannah River might begin by the end of January. As it turned out, shipments finished at least a month before the Silver State sued the NNSA in U.S. District Court in Nevada to stop them.

“DOE may now publicly state that it has completed all shipment of plutonium (approximately ½ metric ton) to Nevada pursuant to its efforts to comply with the South Carolina U.S. District Court order,” Bruce Diamond, NNSA general counsel, wrote in a declaration filed with the U.S. District Court for Nevada in Reno.

Diamond told the court he would not reveal further details of the shipment to Nevada “for reasons of operational security.”

The roughly half-ton of plutonium from Savannah River that was not sent to Nevada will go — if it is not going already — to the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant in Texas, according to the plan NNSA unveiled in August. That month, the agency published an environmental document called a supplement analysis, which for the first time described the Nevada and Texas shipping campaigns planned from Savannah River, and why the shipments were allowed under federal environmental law.

Sometime in the 2020s, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which has no room for the material now, will take custody of the plutonium now in Nevada and turn it into cores for future intercontinental ballistic missile warheads. Plutonium stored at Pantex would be used for the same purpose. The fissile material could shuttle between the Nevada National Security Site and the Pantex Plant before it goes to Los Alamos, the NNSA has said. 

In its Nov. 30 lawsuit, Nevada alleged the NNSA needed to conduct a more detailed environmental review before transporting any of the plutonium at issue to the Device Assembly Facility. The semiautonomous Department of Energy agency told the Nevada court that it had done all the required reviews. 

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) said in a statement Wednesday that he was “beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception from the U.S. Department of Energy,” which “led the State of Nevada to believe that they were engaging in good-faith negotiations with us.”

The NNSA on Thursday defended its actions, maintaining the shipment violated no environmental law, and that it was “inaccurate to state that the Members of the Nevada delegation were not informed of this movement.” The agency said its August supplement analysis counted as informing the delegation of an impending shipment.

Nevada’s senior U.S. senator, who said she met with NNSA officials Thursday evening, did not buy that explanation, and said the agency withheld details of the shipment.

On Wednesday, after the NNSA broke the news that the plutonium had already moved to Nevada, a federal judge in Reno denied the state’s request for a preliminary injunction to block the shipment — not because the shipment had already happened, but on the legal grounds that Nevada would not be irreparably harmed by the shipment.

Also on Wednesday, District Judge Miranda Du threw out the state’s request for a temporary restraining order to block the NNSA from either sending more plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site, or moving plutonium between that site and the Pantex Plant in Texas. Du said she denied the restraining order request for the same reasons she denied the state’s request for a preliminary injunction.

In a status report filed Wednesday with the court, the NNSA said it would ship no more plutonium from South Carolina to Pantex. The agency did not mention any change to previously announced plans to shuttle plutonium between the facilities. Nevada wants Du to compel the NNSA to do more environmental reviews about future plutonium shipments to the Nevada National Security Site, according to a separate status report filed Wednesday in Reno. Judge Du had scheduled no further hearings, nor scheduled the case to go to trial, at deadline Friday for Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor.

In December 2017, as part of a lawsuit brought by South Carolina, the U.S. District Court in that state ordered the NNSA to remove 1 metric ton of plutonium from the state because the agency missed a deadline set by federal law to turn the material into commercial reactor fuel using the Savannah River Site’s now-canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF).

Before the NNSA announced the half-ton shipment to Nevada, South Carolina estimated there was about 10 metric tons of plutonium awaiting MFFF processing at Savannah River. That is part of a 34-metric-ton tranche the plant was supposed to turn into commercial reactor fuel, as part of an arms control pact signed with Russia in 2000 — a pact from which Moscow suspended its participation in 2016.

The DOE branch plans to replace the MFFF with another Savannah River-based disposal method called dilute-and-dispose, which involves chemically weakening the plutonium, mixing it with concrete-like grout in South Carolina, then burying the mixture deep underground at the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Congress has not fully funded dilute-and-dispose, and the NNSA has said the process cannot progress at full speed while the agency is repackaging plutonium for shipment off-site. The shipping campaigns to Nevada and Pantex tie up some of the same Savannah River resources needed for dilute-and-dispose, according to NNSA court filings in South Carolina.

The agency is working on expanded plutonium storage facilities at Los Alamos, but the same federal law South Carolina leaned on in its successful lawsuit requires NNSA to either use MFFF to processes the nearly 10 tons of plutonium sent to Savannah River since April 15, 2002, or else remove the material from the site by Jan. 1, 2022.

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