The state of Nevada has sued the Trump administration to block shipment of more than a metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina to a site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, citing health concerns and the lack of an environmental impact statement.
The U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration say the plan to send an unspecified number of 35-gallon stainless steel drums of plutonium-239 by truck from the Savannah River Site to the Nevada National Security Site isn’t dangerous but haven’t given any assurances to back up their claims.
There are simply too many aspects of the move, according to Nevada’s lawsuit, which government officials haven’t taken into account.
First, they haven’t ensured the plutonium will be moved in “Type B” packages designed to withstand any severe collisions that may arise during transit.
In addition, the government relies on an environmental impact statement from 2013 to navigate the routes, and the massive changes to the metropolitan area highways makes it nearly impossible to properly gauge fluctuating factors such as daily traffic counts, ongoing construction projects, and population density, the lawsuit says.
Because of this lack of certainty, state officials fear if there are any problems during transportation they will be unable to “assure its citizens that they will be safe or to discharge its sovereign duty to be prepared to assist responders if an accident occurs,” the Nov. 30 lawsuit says.
There’s also the problem of not having an eye on the materials while they’re in transit, according to the Silver State.
Once the shipments leave South Carolina, “Nevada will forever lose the ability to formally comment upon safety and environmental concerns related to the shipments,” the lawsuit says.
When a hazardous nuclear material is put within reach of a civilian population, the need for more stringent restrictions becomes necessary. Plutonium is toxic to humans, and when it decays it emits alpha particles than can be harmful when they affect cells through ingestion or inhalation. The accumulation of these helium atoms can, with repeated exposure, increase the probability of getting cancer.
Of course, health risks aside, there’s the matter of what to do with the plutonium once it arrives.
After making it the Nevada site, the plutonium would be “staged” for “an indefinite period of time” before being moved to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to be used for making nuclear weapons at some point in the future.
Even if all the qualifications and roadblocks had been overcome to send the plutonium, the state insists the plan simply isn’t pragmatic.
According to the complaint, the feds haven’t considered “at least five viable alternatives… (which) should pose less risk and less environmental impacts” than shipping to Nevada. The state suggests the Y12 Security Complex in Oak Ridge Tennessee, the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, the Sandia Lab In Albuquerque, New Mexico, or directly to the Los Alamos site as possible alternatives.
Essentially, Nevada says it makes no sense to move the plutonium west hundreds of miles only to ship it back east.
“Nevada is rightly concerned that the one metric ton of plutonium is merely the first step in a series of connected actions that will result in the transportation of the entire plutonium surplus to the NNSS in Nevada,” the state says in its lawsuit, noting the surplus is 34 metric tons of plutonium.
After Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval expressed his disapproval of the plan back in September, the Department of Energy responded but “provided none of the assurance” the state was looking for and instead “touted its safety and security record,” the complaint says.
Nevada seeks a finding the federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Council on Environmental Regulations and their own rules by not preparing a supplemental environmental impact statement for the plan. It wants a federal judge to set aside the plan and ensure the feds comply with the law.
The Nevada Attorney General’s Office is representing the state, including state AG Adam Laxalt and deputy AGs C. Wayne Howle and Daniel Nubel, as well as Marta Adams of Adams Natural Resources Consulting Services and Martin Malsch of the firm Egan, Fitzpatrick, Malsch & Lawrence in Washington.
Neither the Nevada Attorney General’s Office nor the Department of Energy returned phone calls seeking comment.