Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she plans to personally urge Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) to lift a hold on four Energy Department nominees because of the latter’s concerns over plutonium shipments to Nevada.
Cortez Masto threw a roadblock in the path to confirmation for the nominees, who advanced out of committee March 7, because she said the agency shipped half a metric ton of weapons-grade radioactive plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada without first notifying state elected officials.
If the hold—placed March 8—isn’t lifted, it would require the Senate to devote time to a cloture vote and hours of floor time before an up-or-down vote on the nominees could be held.
“I have concerns about how [Energy Department officials] are handling it and I want them to come in and talk with me, and be candid with me and honest with me, which they have not done,” she told Bloomberg Environment.
Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that reported out the nominees on a bipartisan basis, said she’s going to speak with Cortez Masto and “I’m going to encourage the administration to have conversations with her as well.”
Hold Until Plutonium Removed
Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) sent a Feb. 1 letter to the Energy Department opposing the shipment of plutonium to the state after Nevada filed a complaint and preliminary injunction in a U.S. federal court in the state to prevent the shipments, which the agency announced in August 2018 that it planned to do.
The Department of Justice announced Jan. 30 it had in fact made the shipment prior to November 2018.
The Energy Department said it hand-delivered its response letter to Cortez Masto’s office on Feb. 14.
Ryan King, the communications director for Cortez Masto, said the letter didn’t address the senator’s concerns, and that she would place holds on all Energy Department nominations until she gets a commitment on a date for the removal of plutonium shipped to Nevada as well as stop any further shipments.
The department’s letter, written by the department’s National Nuclear Safety Administration Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, said the 2026-2027 time frame is earliest date by which plutonium will transferred to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and assured that it won’t be permanently stored in Nevada.
She said the plutonium was shipped to an existing DOE/NNSA site in Nevada that already contained similar material. She said the material will be use for the nation’s nuclear deterrent and is not waste. She also said she’ll be providing a classified briefing to Cortez Masto and the Nevada delegation.
She has since provided a classified briefing to the Nevada delegation in Congress, a DOE spokesperson said.
The nominees also were voted favorably out of committee in the last Congress but never received a Senate floor vote, requiring the Trump administration to resubmit their nominations in the new Congress.
The nominees are Rita Baranwal to head the Office of Nuclear Energy, William Cooper to be the department’s general counsel, Christopher Fall to head the Office of Science, and Lane Genatowski to lead the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.
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