Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019 | 7:16 p.m.
RENO — A federal judge in Nevada said Thursday she's unlikely to decide before next month whether to block the U.S. Energy Department from shipping a metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to a nuclear security site north of Las Vegas.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du expressed sympathy at times for the state's argument during an evidentiary hearing in Reno stretching nearly six hours that the federal government has failed to complete an adequate environmental review necessary to ship the radioactive material to Nevada.
But she declined to immediately grant the state's request for a temporary injunction blocking the move and agreed to allow Justice Department lawyers to file additional briefs on behalf of the Energy Department.
The judge also wants to review a pending motion by the state of South Carolina due by the end of this month to transfer the case back to South Carolina, where a federal judge earlier ordered the plutonium be removed from the Savannah River nuclear weapon refining complex by Jan. 1, 2020.
"I don't know what my ruling is going to be," Du said. "I hope the government doesn't ship plutonium pending a ruling by this court."
The Energy Department earlier sought to delay Thursday's hearing because of the partial government shutdown. Du refused, citing the urgency of the matter based on the state's fear an accident could permanently harm an area home to 2.2 million permanent residents and host to more than 40 million tourists a year.
Experts testifying on behalf of Nevada said the material likely would have to pass directly through Las Vegas on the way to the Nevada Nuclear National Security Site about 70 miles north of the city.
The Energy Department wants to temporarily store the material at the Nevada site and the government's Pantex Plant in Texas, two facilities that already handle and process plutonium. The department says it would be sent by 2027 to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico or an unnamed other facility.
But Nevada officials fear it would remain in their state indefinitely. Last fall, the federal court in South Carolina cited the Department of Energy's failure to meet a series of earlier deadlines in ordering the plutonium removed from there by New Year's Day of 2020.
"I've seen DOE miss a number of deadlines," said Bradley Crowell, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation & Natural Resources and Division of Environmental Protection.
"I have no confidence personally that what was experienced in South Carolina won't be repeated here," he testified Thursday.
Department lawyers insist they'll comply with all safety and security requirements but that the potential transportation routes and other details that Nevada wants are classified. They say previous environmental impact statements related to transportation of plutonium nationally as well as a site-specific environmental impact statement at the Nevada facility in 2013 were adequate and, therefore, a supplemental environmental impact statement sought by Nevada isn't necessary.
"I can't tell you it will go from Savannah River through Ohio and through Utah and into Nevada," said David Negri, the Justice Department lawyer who presented the Department of Energy's case on Thursday. "I don't have that information. It is top secret, classified information."
Du said she originally hoped to issue a ruling on the preliminary injunction by the end of next week but that won't be possible. She said she's required to defer to the agency's expertise to a certain extent, but that the state's argument that Department of Energy has never moved such a large amount of plutonium in just a year's time "seemed persuasive to me."
"It seems to me," Du said, "That part of the gist of the government's argument is that, 'We've been doing this a long time. We know what we are doing. You have to trust us.' "