After almost two years of litigation and months of discussion, the state of Nevada and the federal government, namely the U.S. Department of Energy, have settled a heated dispute over the clandestine shipment of defense plutonium from the Savannah River Site to the Nevada National Security Site.
Terms of the settlement include relocating the plutonium – a half metric-ton, to be used in plutonium pit production, the forging of nuclear weapon cores – beginning next year and wrapping the effort by the end of 2026, according to Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, a Democrat.
Both the previous and current U.S. secretaries of energy, Rick Perry and Dan Brouillette, and National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty committed to that timeline before the settlement was struck.
Federal court documents did not offer more detail or insight on the settlement. U.S. District Judge Miranda M. Du dismissed the case Monday.
“I am pleased to see the results of the hard work and persistence on behalf of Nevadans from the Attorney General’s Office and our federal delegation to reach this settlement agreement,” Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement. “This settlement is a significant victory in our state’s efforts to keep the weapons-grade material out of our state.”
The National Nuclear Security Administration in 2018 moved a half metric-ton of weapons-grade plutonium from the Savannah River Site, south of Aiken and New Ellenton, to the Nevada National Security Site, near Las Vegas, in a bid to partially satisfy a separate federal court order.
The NNSA, the Energy Department’s weapons-and-nonproliferation arm, publicized the planned relocation in a July 2018 environmental review. The study explained up to 10 shipments could leave the Savannah River Site, bound for either the Nevada complex or the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas.
The plutonium would be staged there and eventually moved to Los Alamos National Laboratory, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, for use in nuclear weapons programs.
Nevada in late 2018 sued the Energy Department, its NNSA and various officials in an attempt to stop the shipments to the Silver State. They had, though, already been completed, as was later revealed in court documents. Relatedly, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last summer dismissed Nevada’s plutonium arguments as moot; any alleged damage the state was trying to preempt was already wrought, a panel of judges commented.
Nevada officials have long maintained they were unaware of the plutonium being trucked into their tourism-heavy state. Sisolak in February 2019 said the secretive campaign – kept quiet for security and safety reasons, other officials have noted – “destroyed any semblance of trust” between the department and the state. Later that month, the Democratic governor requested a sit-down with President Donald Trump to discuss the matter.
“The Trump administration attempted to mislead the courts and secretly dump radioactive plutonium in our backyard. Nevadans have Governor Sisolak, Attorney General Ford, and our congressional delegation to thank for not letting the Department of Energy get away with it,” U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, said in a statement last week. “Time and again, the Trump administration has treated our state as a trash can for the nation’s waste.”
Both Perry, the former energy secretary, and William “Ike” White, previously the NNSA’s chief of staff, in letters described the plutonium sent from the Savannah River Site as explicitly not waste and, among other things, vital to national security missions.
The potential for a settlement was first disclosed earlier this year.
In one court filing, the parties said they were engaged in “substantive and promising” negotiations and that judicial intervention could jeopardize an “amicable” solution. In another filing, in late May, the parties said they had agreed on the “final language” of the deal but more time was needed to secure “final authorization.”