Ninth Circuit Rejects Nevada’s Resistance to US Plutonium Shipments

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The Ninth Circuit on Tuesday ruled against Nevada in a battle with the federal government over its secret shipment of weapons-grade plutonium to a site near Las Vegas, but the state’s attorney general says the fight isn’t over yet.

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, center, is briefed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Plutonium Facility in May 2017. (Los Alamos National Laboratory via AP)

A three-judge panel denied Nevada’s appeal after a judge refused to block shipments to Nevada. The court said the matter is moot because the Energy Department already has sent the radioactive material and promised that no more will be hauled there.

“The remedy Nevada sought — stopping the government from shipping plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada under the proposed action — is no longer available,” the court wrote.

Nevada also wanted the court to order the government to remove the plutonium it shipped last year but did not reveal had arrived there until January.

The Ninth Circuit said that issue also is moot because the state failed to include the request in its original motion seeking to block future shipments.

“Because the government completed the shipment, any harm caused by the shipment cannot be ‘undone’ by granting the motion Nevada actually filed,” the ruling states.

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford said late Tuesday he will continue to press the state’s case in court but did not provide any immediate details of its next legal move.

“The Department of Energy’s deceitful behavior in handling these shipments demonstrates my office’s need to continue aggressively litigating to hold the Department of Energy to its promises,” Ford said in a statement.

“The health and safety of all Nevadans is of paramount importance to my office, and our dedicated team will continue to pursue all options for ensuring that no further unlawful plutonium shipments reach this state,” he said.

Among other options, Nevada could now request a hearing before the full Ninth Circuit or seek a new court order to remove the plutonium that’s already been shipped.

The Energy Department, led by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday.

Nevada sued in federal court in Reno last November, accusing the agency of illegally deciding it could transport the material without completing a full environmental review of potential health and safety dangers.

Although Nevada was not aware of it at the time, the government already had shipped a half metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina to the Nevada National Security Site, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. That site is separate from but close to the Yucca Mountain site in the Mojave Desert where the Trump administration wants to build a high-level radioactive waste repository.

Nevada says the Trump administration abused Top Secret classifications to meet a court order to remove a ton of weapons-grade plutonium from the Savannah River site in South Carolina by Jan. 1, 2020.

While Nevada’s appeal was pending, Secretary Perry sent a letter to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, pledging to expedite removal of the plutonium already sent to Nevada — beginning in 2021 — and promising no more will be sent there.

He’s visited the site twice in recent months and provided a classified briefing to Gov. Steve Sisolak to try to allay the state’s concerns.

The radioactive material is not intended to be unpacked in Nevada, only temporarily stored before it is moved again, most likely to New Mexico or Texas for reprocessing for use in nuclear weapons.

The Energy Department has said it expects to move the plutonium from Nevada to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico “or another facility” by the “2026-2027 timeframe.”

Nevada’s attorneys argued that Energy Department couldn’t be trusted because of past misrepresentations about the covert shipment. The state said U.S. officials selectively declassified information as it suited their needs.

The Energy Department insists the plutonium was properly classified for security.

It disclosed that the material was in Nevada on Jan. 30, the same day Judge Miranda Du in Reno denied a state request to temporarily halt all shipments. She also ruled that the matter was moot.

Nevada argued in its appeal to the Ninth Circuit that the case was not moot, partly because the government had “voluntarily” ceased the shipments and could resume them at any time.

But the court ruled that “the alleged injury was no longer redressable.”

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