They have their own brand of it in D.C.
If Nevada had not filed suit to try to stop plutonium from coming into the state, it would never have known the stuff was already in Nevada.
On Dec. 20, 2017, U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to remove a metric ton of plutonium from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina within two years or no later than Jan. 1, 2020.
A few weeks ago, on Nov. 30, while Nevada officials were in talks with the DOE—and shortly before the DOE released a “progress report” that said the plutonium move would mean “additional radiation exposure to workers"—Nevada filed a lawsuit to halt any shipment to the state.
Then, last week, a DOE lawyer filed papers updating the court on what he claimed was newly declassified information. It informed the court that a half ton of plutonium had already been shipped to the Nevada National Security Site (formerly called the Nevada Test Site) before the state filed its lawsuit.
Nevada officials were livid.
“I am beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception from the U.S. Department of Energy,” Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a prepared statement.
“We’re going to be really pissed off if it turns out they snuck a shipment in here while they were engaged in what we thought were good faith negotiations,” Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects Executive Director Robert Halstead told the Nevada Independent.
“The Department of Energy (DOE) and NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] negotiated in bad faith, hiding the timing of their shipment and refused to share crucial information with Members of Congress who had the security clearance to know,” said a prepared statement by U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
Did the DOE fail to tell Nevada officials before shipping the plutonium?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Federal agencies are amazingly skilled at obfuscating their actions, and news stories of 50 or 100 words don’t deal in nuance.
Snopes, the website that started out exposing urban legends and has expanded to fact-check claims in the news, has rated the Nevada officials’ claim “unproven.” The accompanying text merely recounted the events that brought the waste to Nevada. There was no examination of the record.
“It is inaccurate to state that the members of the Nevada delegation were not informed of this movement,” said a prepared statement from the DOE. “The Department of Energy was as transparent as operational security would permit. Efforts were made to ensure that Members of Congress and state officials representing the states involved were notified of the planned movement ahead of time, as early as August 2018 when NNSA publicly released the plan in a Supplement Analysis. Since then, NNSA confirmed that it was ‘actively engaged’ in removing one metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada, Texas, and New Mexico.”
The “supplement analysis” referenced is a 49-page report with an index and glossary and verbiage that, if it ever came to the attention of Nevada officials, may well have seemed to be describing a future shipment. It does not say that the DOE is about to move plutonium. It says the DOE “proposes to move” plutonium. Nor does it say where the shipment would be taken. That was yet to be decided: “near Amarillo, Texas and/or Nevada National Security site.”
The DOE claim that Nevada officials were informed, incidentally, seems to conflict with the court filing by its lawyer, Bruce Diamond, who wrote, “In order to provide security for its shipments of these kinds of materials, DOE normally will not release information about the status of the shipment(s) until sometime after the shipping ‘campaign’ is concluded.”
Moreover, the notion that informing members of the Nevada congressional delegation was adequate notice is faulty. Federal agencies also have a responsibility to inform the public of their actions. The DOE says it did that and as proof has presented one newspaper report published in Aiken, South Carolina, population 30,000, adjacent to the Savannah site ("NNSA: Weapons-grade plutonium will be moved out of SC this year, next year,” Aiken Standard, Nov. 1, 2018).
The problem with the DOE statement “The Department of Energy was as transparent as operational security would permit” is that the DOE has a conflict of interest—it decides for itself what constitutes security. The citizen is forced to accept its assessment, when the motivation for the action may be security but may also be public relations or concealment of an awkward bureaucratic problem. It’s not like there is no precedent within the DOE and its predecessor agencies for these other motivations. The DOE and its earlier bureaucratic incarnations—the Energy Research and Development Administration and, still earlier, the Atomic Energy Commission—have long had a reputation for a casual relationship with accuracy.
“The AEC was just the worst agency,” journalist I.F. Stone said in 1988. “They were mendacious. They started out right off the bat by telling us that fallout was good for you, and it was all downhill from there.”
There have been many indications that this climate within the AEC was retained as the agency evolved into the DOE.
For instance, just as Donald Trump would like U.S. intelligence agencies to concoct findings that support his policies, he also expects the U.S. Energy Department to support his anti-alternative energy policy—and the department has accommodated him. Trump has a policy of propping up coal and nuclear, and his Energy Secretary Rick Perry claimed in 2017 that “grid experts” say energy alternatives make the power grid less stable. Perry even appointed a panel of such experts to examine the issue and was disappointed when it came back with a report that said, with a few reservations, that wind and solar did nothing to undercut the reliability of the grid. Nevertheless, the maneuver demonstrated the way the DOE can obfuscate to advance political policy.
This sort of thing has been going on since before the DOE and its previous agencies even existed. In 1945, federal nuclear officials prevailed on New York Times reporter William Laurence—the only reporter present at the detonation of the first atomic bomb, in New Mexico—to write a Sept. 12, 1945 report challenging the notion that various deaths and sicknesses from radiation had followed the Hiroshima bomb: “This historic ground in New Mexico, scene of the first atomic explosion on Earth and cradle of a new era in civilization, gave the most effective answer today to Japanese propaganda that radiations were responsible for deaths even after the day of the explosion, Aug. 6, and that persons entering Hiroshima had contracted mysterious maladies due to persistent radioactivity.” There were later reports that Laurence was on the payroll of the War Department, later called the Defense Department.
Similar approaches to controlling information were taken to Western states residents when atomic testing began in Nevada. When the Atomic Energy Commission announced in January 1951 that it would begin testing on a gunnery range in Southern Nevada, it said the explosions would be safe. When in October of that year it announced that servicepeople would be present for the tests, it said the troops would be out of range of any dangers. In August 1953, the AEC said the tests were affecting livestock but made no such admission about humans. Yet in 1954, it had Tonopah residents wearing radiation badges to determine whether they were affected by radiation levels. In 1955, when U.S. Rep. Douglas Stringfellow of Utah demanded an end to the testing, AEC scientists Alvin Graves and Jack Clark were sent to Las Vegas, Mesquite, St. George and Cedar City to calm locals. In 1957, AEC member Willard Libby said rain that fell in the District of Columbia was hot with radiation but was “not dangerous and nothing to be frightened about.” In 1967, the New York Times disclosed a 22-year effort by the Pentagon and the AEC to acquire and suppress film footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki aftermaths.
Journalists were not a great deal of help. In 1954, the Las Vegas Review Journal referred to “the highly accurate information” the AEC provided. In 1962, when protesters appeared at the test site, the Las Vegas office of United Press International called them “professional protesters.”
Finally, there were the failings of elected representatives. In both Nevada and South Carolina, elected officials loved the jobs they got in the 1950s and ‘60s from their states’ roles in nuclear weapons, but they gave very little scrutiny to the risks and hazards that accompanied those jobs.
Now, South Carolina wants to dump the resulting waste on another state, and Nevada wants no part of it. Nevada’s waste from its cooperation with the federal government is vast tracts of irradiated land that cannot be moved anywhere and will not be habitable for 24,000 years. In 1967, when the AEC belatedly announced that figure, Gov. Paul Laxalt expressed surprise, but also immediately declared his faith in the public’s safety.
Notification is treated differently in some federal agencies than it is in the reality in which most people live. Many federal agencies are highly skilled at using jargon to obfuscate and conceal their actual activities.
One example is the sudden January 2006 announcement by an agency called the Defense National Stockpile Center (DNSC) that it would dump more than 4,000 metric tons of mercury at a site near Hawthorne. The action had clearly been in preparation for years—an environmental impact statement had been done—and DNSC insisted it had fully informed Nevada officials that the plan was under consideration.
The RN&R combed through all the public notices the agency had issued and laid them out for readers to decide whether that had happened ("Public notice,” March 23, 2006). We reported that after examining all public notices and statements issued by DNSC between the start of the search for a dump site in 2001 and its completion almost exactly five years later, we had found that there “were 14 such notices … filled with bureaucratese and candor-free. There was no announcement at any time that the agency was targeting Nevada or that the environmental impact statement completed partway through the process recommended Nevada as one of the candidate sites.”
It is true that as a small state, Nevada does not have the kind of staff support to closely monitor everything the federal government does in military, environmental, energy and other fields that might involve serious impacts on the Great Basin. For instance, in order for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to have known about the mercury site search its staff would have to examine all filings in the Federal Register, a daily magazine that lists all federal agency actions—and even then, they might well have missed the March 5, 2001 notice on page 13,308 of the Register describing the DNSC plan for “consolidated storage of the excess mercury” because it neglected to mention Nevada or Hawthorne.
That’s what happens when public agencies will not speak with candor to inform the public and its representatives. Ω