Indy DC Download: Nevada congressional Democrats send letters to DOE's Perry, NNSA chief seeking details of plutonium shipment

February 2, 2019
In The News

Members of the state’s congressional delegation capped off last week by sending two letters to the Department of Energy seeking information about a secret 2018 shipment of a half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium sent to the Nevada National Security Site.

One letter, signed by all of Nevada’s congressional Democrats and sent Friday to Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, who heads the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, called for a detailed timeline of the shipment, information on the route of the shipment and the states the material traveled through, and a report about future National Nuclear Security Administration projects and hazardous materials shipped to Nevada. Members requested that the information be delivered to their offices no later than Feb. 10.

Rep. Steven Horsford, whose district includes the NNSS, helped organize the letter.

“This week, families across my district woke up to the troubling news that hazardous materials were transported through our communities,”said Horsford in a release. “The Trump Administration owes answers to those families — and it owes them now.”

The other letter was sent by Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, also Friday, to Energy Secretary Rick Perry asking 18 questions, including how many shipments were made to Nevada, what modes of transportation were used, and what form was the plutonium in when shipped and what kind of container was the plutonium shipped in.

“We write to you today to express our continued outrage at your Department’s breach of trust enacted by your Department with the State of Nevada,” the letter said. “The decisions and subsequent actions made by you and officials under your leadership have caused potentially irreparable damage to a previously-collaborative state-federal relationship. It is imperative for you and your Department to course-correct in order to avoid a complete erosion of public trust.”

The letters followed a briefing Thursday requested by Cortez Masto where she sought to get answers to these questions, but was told the information was classified and could not be shared with her. Horsford also attended the meeting.

After the meeting Cortez Masto said she intends to request a classified briefing on the matter, plans to schedule a visit to the NNSS and pledged to use all the legislative and procedural tools at her disposal to ensure that no more plutonium is shipped and that the load at the NNSS is moved as promised by the DOE.

At the state level, Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford are deciding how to respond after a court Thursday denied the state’s request that DOE be barred from shipping any more plutonium to the state.

“I know they are going to take every action they possibly can in court to hold [DOE] accountable,” Cortez Masto said.

Meanwhile, the Senate advanced a GOP-drafted proposal this past week that pushed back against President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan, while House Democrats passed legislation to raise the pay of federal workers.

Nevada’s Democratic senators voted for the amendment, which advanced 68 to 23. The amendment, which was attached to broader Middle East policy legislation that is expected to pass the Senate next week, condemned Trump’s call for withdrawal of forces. And while the measure, authored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, consists of non-binding language, the vote was a rare display of almost all Senate Republicans breaking with Trump.

The legislation also included a provision to allow state and local governments to divest from companies and entities that back the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement, which seeks to influence Israel’s policies against the Palestinians through boycotts and other means.

Cortez Masto said she generally opposes BDS, but she also has concerns that the provision would hinder free speech.

“I hope that this bill can continue to be improved through further congressional debate and input from the House of Representatives,” she said in a release.

In the House, all of the state’s Democrats voted for a bill to give federal workers a 2.6 percent cost of living raise. Rep. Mark Amodei was one of the 161 Republicans who voted against the measure. Opponents, such as Rep. Jim Jordan, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, argued on the House floor that the raise would further skew pay in favor of college-educated government workers who make 21 percent more than college graduates in the private sector, citing a Congressional Budget Office study. Federal blue collar workers make 53 percent more than their private sector colleagues, Jordan said.

Passage of the bill comes after Congress and Trump agreed to reopen the federal government after a 35-day shutdown, the longest in U.S. history. The shutdown prevented 800,000 federal workers from getting paid, including 3,500 in Nevada.

The House action also came as House and Senate negotiators, nine Democrats and eight Republicans, met Wednesday to try to find a compromise to keep the government from shutting down again when the temporary stopgap spending bill expires at midnight Feb. 15. But Democrats on the panel still showed no sign of conceding to Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to help build a wall on the southern border—his signature 2016 campaign promise.

On Thursday, Speaker Pelosi said that there would be no wall money, but added that there may be a need for some infrastructure, such as more roads at ports of entry.

“There’s not going to be any wall money in the legislation,” she said at her weekly press conference.

“They know their limitations, in terms of financial resources, and they have to choose the best way to use the money for the American people,” Pelosi said of the negotiators. “I have confidence in what they can do.”

Asked about Pelosi’s comments and whether he would be open to a deal on those terms, Trump said “No, because if there’s no wall, it doesn’t work. She’s just playing games. So if there’s no wall, it doesn’t work.”

Amodei, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said last week that he was skeptical that a deal could be reached to prevent a second shutdown.

“I just hope we don’t meet everybody’s lowest expectations, but history will tell us there’s a good chance of that,” he said, citing the so-called super committee that was created in 2011 to negotiate significant budget cuts, but failed and triggered automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.

Nevada’s federal lawmakers were busy on other issues of interest to the state.

Cortez Masto introduced a bill that would bar oil and gas drilling in the state’s Ruby Mountains. The measure was prompted by an effort beginning in 2017 by the Department of Interior to open the area to oil and gas exploration.

“Expansive oil and gas drilling on the Ruby Mountains is not only a threat to one of the Silver State’s natural treasures, it also risks the livelihoods of Nevadans who rely on our state’s outdoor economy,” she said in a release.

An avid hiker, Cortez Masto told The Nevada Independent recently that hiking the Ruby Mountains left a big impression on her.

Cortez Masto and Rosen wrote to the Department of Energy (DOE) last week in response to a recent article in The New York Times that said a guard at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), Jennifer Glover, was fired after accusing her colleagues of sexual assault.

The letter urged DOE to launch an investigation into the alleged sexual assault, harassment, and retaliation that took place in 2017. “The actions described are unacceptable and require your immediate attention and swift action to protect the rights and safety of the survivor and to hold perpetrators accountable,” they wrote.

In the House, Rep. Susie Lee was assigned to be the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Technology Modernization Subcommittee. “This Subcommittee will make sure that the VA is doing this in the most effective way so that our veterans are cared for in a timely manner without abusing taxpayer dollars,” she said, adding that she was honored to be tapped for the post.