SRS Sign, Plutonium Settlement

The Savannah River Site is a 310-square-mile nuclear complex located south of Aiken.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the state of Nevada could soon settle a lengthy legal dispute regarding the cross-country relocation of weapons-usable plutonium once kept at the Savannah River Site, new court documents show.

In a court filing last week, the parties said they were "engaged in substantive and promising" negotiations, and that further judicial intervention could jeopardize an "amicable" solution.

A federal judge in the Silver State on March 17 agreed to pause the related court case and requested a formal update by the end of the month.

Nevada in late 2018 sued the Energy Department to prevent it from transporting plutonium from the Savannah River Site, about 30 minutes south of Aiken, to the Nevada National Security Site, relatively close to Las Vegas. The state at the time claimed environmental regulations were being breached.

By that time, though, the Energy Department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration had already moved a half-metric ton of defense plutonium to the Nevada reserve — effectively rendering the case moot. The clandestine campaign was disclosed after the fact by the NNSA's general counsel, Bruce Diamond.

The SRS-to-NNSS shipments infuriated Nevada leaders and politicians, who claimed they were kept in the dark. Gov. Steve Sisolak in a February 2019 letter said the Energy Department moved "without notifying my predecessor, Governor Brian Sandoval, or any member of Nevada's federal delegation."

The National Nuclear Security Administration, led by Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, in a July 2018 study made public its plans to truck a total 1 metric ton of plutonium out of South Carolina, a speedy bid to satisfy a court order. The material would go to Nevada and Texas, to the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, and then on to New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory for plutonium pit production, the agency explained.

Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores.

South Carolina joined the case in January 2019 and sided with the Energy Department. Nevada opposed the intervention, arguing the Palmetto State's interests and rights were not at risk.

South Carolina was dismissed from the case months later.

Nevada late last year asked the federal court to compel the Energy Department to remove the half-metric ton from the Nevada National Security Site and, beyond that, vacate the NNSA's 2018 study.

Both Rick Perry and Dan Brouillette — the former and current secretaries of energy, respectively — have promised an embittered Nevada congressional delegation that the plutonium cache will be moved out of state by the end of 2026.

Efforts will begin in 2021, Perry and Brouillette have said.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin