Much to the chagrin of Nevada’s governor, Steve Sisolak, a half metric ton of plutonium arrived in Nevada from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina sometime recently, he just doesn’t know exactly when.

The state of Nevada fought long and hard to keep the plutonium out of the area where it’s stored, which is just 70 miles north of Las Vegas, a mecca for about 40 million tourists every year and home to 2.2 million residents. Governor Sisolak has said he’s working with Nevada’s congressional delegation to fight back against what he called the federal government’s “reckless disregard” for the safety of Nevada residents.

On November 30, 2018, the state of Nevada filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Reno to stop shipment of the plutonium from South Carolina to the Nevada National Security Site; the suit alleged that the Department of Energy had not been compliant wit the National Environmental Policy Act. The Governor of Nevada did not know that the radioactive substance that’s highly toxic to humans had already arrived at the Nevada location. The Governor, understandably, was outraged.

Weapons- grade plutonium is made specifically for military purposes and is highly toxic to humans when ingested, inhaled, or when it reaches (contaminates) open wounds in the skin. The primary way that plutonium endangers the lives of humans is through inhalation.

Plutonium Secretly Shipped to Nevada

On January 30, the United States Department of Energy revealed that it “secretly” shipped weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to a nuclear security site in Nevada months ago despite the state’s protests. The Justice Department notified a federal judge in Reno that the government transported the radioactive material to store at the Nevada site before the state made the first official request to block the transport back in November. The DOE said the shipment arrived prior to November 2018.

Attorneys for the Justice Department, in a 9-page filing, explained that previously classified information about the shipment from the South Carolina Savannah River Site can now be disclosed because “enough time has passed to protect national security.” The lawyers did not specify, however, when, exactly, the one-half metric ton of plutonium was transferred from South Carolina to Nevada via CSX rail.

The state of Nevada has argued that the Department of Energy “has failed to adequately study the potential dangers of moving the material to an area that is subject to flash floods and earthquakes,” and fears the land and groundwater may already be contaminated with the radioactive plutonium.

Battle Wages On

The fight over this plutonium is not over. Nevada and South Carolina are continuing to argue over where the legal challenge to the transportation of the plutonium should be heard. In legal briefs filed in Reno last week, each state claimed that their court is the proper place to argue over what happens next with the plutonium. The Department of Energy wants to temporarily store the radioactive material at its current Nevada location and the federal government’s Pantex Plant in Texas. The DOE says the plutonium would be sent to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico or another unnamed facility by the year 2027.

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