Secret Cross-Country Plutonium Shipment Ignored US Law & Nevada Lawsuit
Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2019
With two recent actions, government nuclear power and weapons program administrators in the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission appear to have flagrantly disregarded federal and state law governing transport of highly radioactive materials in one case, and storage of it in another.
Sometime late last year, the Energy Dept. secretly shipped a half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada in defiance of Nevada’s public opposition and the National Environmental Policy Act.
In the face of near unanimous resistance from Nevada state lawmakers, and from past and present governors, the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) secretly sent the extremely hazardous shipment across the country without notifying first responders or emergency preparedness officials in any city or state through which the plutonium passed, and without first completing an environmental impact assessment.
The NNSA acknowledged its clandestine transport during a court hearing in January. Former Nevada governor Brian Sandoval had filed a November 2018 lawsuit to prevent DOE’s shipment without first filing an environmental impact statement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
In a January 30 court filing, the NNSA claimed that its shipment of the plutonium was “before November 2018, prior to the initiation of…” Sandoval’s lawsuit. However, the agency refused to say exactly when the shipment took place.
The government’s admission that the plutonium was secretly shipped to the Nevada National Security Site 70 miles north of Las Vegas (formerly called the Nevada Test Site), outraged state politicians and other observers. The Associated Press reported that Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak was “beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception” and said he’s working with Nevada’s congressional delegation to fight back against the government’s “reckless disregard” for the safety of Nevadans.
The Mineral County Independent-News reported April 4, 2019 that Amber Torres, Chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, joined 12 Nevada tribal leaders in writing to President Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry protesting that the shipment was done without first informing state or tribal officials. The Tribe was “outraged that Federal officials … have shipped radioactive plutonium to Nevada in spite of the state’s vehement opposition to the idea and concerns that doing so opens the state up to further nuclear waste dumping,” Torres wrote.
The Nevada National Security Site is the “ancestral homelands of the Western Shoshone people,” said Arlan Melendez, Chair of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, a federally recognized government in Reno, Nevada.
State lawmakers and Gov. Sisolak had demanded that studies be done regarding the chances and impacts of transport accidents, but were ignored by the NNSA.
Atomic Licensing Board Violates US Nuclear Waste Policy Act
A similarly crass trampling of environmental law was issued May 7 by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), an arm of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Licensing Board was petitioned by Beyond Nuclear to dismiss the unlawful application for a permit, submitted by Holtec International/Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (Holtec), to “temporarily” store 173,600 metric tons of highly radioactive waste reactor fuel rods in southeast New Mexico.
The petition to terminate Holtec’s application is based on the fact that the governing Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended, forbids any transfer of the commercial reactor waste to a temporary or “interim” storage site, only to a permanent repository. Holtec could do this as a private enterprise, but the company wants the Energy Department to pay all its costs, and the industry is lobbying Congress to further amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
In what Beyond Nuclear called “an astounding ruling,” the ASLB agreed that the application violates federal law, but it nevertheless dismissed the legal challenge on the ground that Holtec could be depended on not to implement the unlawful provision if the license were granted. “…the Board assumes Holtec will honor its commitment not to contract unlawfully with DOE to store any other spent nuclear fuel. Likewise, we assume DOE would not be complicit in any such unlawful contracts.”
Mindy Goldstein, a lawyer for Beyond Nuclear said, “Holtec, Beyond Nuclear, and the NRC all agree that a fundamental provision in the Holtec application violates the US Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Today the Licensing Board decided that the violation did not matter. But, the Board cannot ignore the mandates of federal law.”
The legal counsel has appealed to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) against the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) rulings in favor of Holtec International’s license application.