COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday moved forward with her threat to sue the U.S. Department of Energy for the agency’s failure to meet a Jan. 1 nuclear fuel deadline, asking South Carolina’s top prosecutor to pursue litigation and collection of $1 million daily fines.
“The federal government has, once again, failed to keep its promise to the people of our state,” Haley wrote to Attorney General Alan Wilson in a letter obtained by The Associated Press. “South Carolina will not sit idly by while DOE continues – in violation of federal law – to ignore its commitment to the people of South Carolina.”
Savannah River Site’s mixed-oxide project – known as MOX – is intended to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. It is years behind schedule and billions over budget.
Officials with the Department of Energy did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
MOX is intended to help the U.S. fulfill an agreement with Russia to dispose of at least 34 metric tons apiece of weapons-grade plutonium. Construction began in 2007. The General Accountability Office has said the project is more than three years behind its completion deadline – and, at $8 billion, at least $3 billion over its original budget.
Since MOX is not operating, by law the federal government was supposed to remove 1 metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina by Jan. 1 or pay $1 million a day for “economic and impact assistance,” up to $100 million yearly, until either the facility meets production goals or the plutonium is taken out of the state.
A clause in the law, however, makes the fine “subject to the availability of appropriations.”
Haley warned Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in December that the state would be forced to sue if his agency didn’t start making payments. In writing to Wilson, Haley also enclosed a letter she received this month from Moniz, who said the administration remains committed to removing the surplus plutonium from SRS and reiterated the state’s “critical role” in nonproliferation efforts.
Haley copied Tuesday’s letter to the state’s congressional delegation. U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson – father of the attorney general – have previously encouraged the governor to sue to keep the project going.
“The citizens of South Carolina have a commitment with the Department of Energy – our state accepted weapons-grade plutonium with the understanding that the federal government had an obligation for disposition and eventual transfer to a permanent repository,” Wilson said in a statement. “I applaud Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson for standing up for the agreement."
“The administration must complete construction of MOX – the only viable method at this time of disposing of the plutonium,” Wilson continued. “We cannot allow our state to become a repository of high-level, weapons-grade plutonium.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., who toured the MOX facility last week with Wilson and two other lawmakers, did not immediately return e-mails seeking comment.
Tom Clements, the director of SRS Watch, applauded Haley’s decision.
“While the law was written so that DOE can avoid paying any fines, the governor’s action is positive in that it will not only dramatically underscore daunting problems with the MOX project but will also move DOE to more rapidly pursue other plutonium disposition options,” said.
South Carolina previously sued the Obama administration in 2014 after officials said they wanted to shutter the project, citing cost overruns and delays. In that lawsuit, the state said the government had made a commitment to South Carolina and shouldn’t mothball the effort.
The state dropped the suit when the administration committed to funding the project through that fiscal year. But the administration has since said it’s searching for a less expensive way to dispose of the plutonium.
Staff writer Travis Highfield contributed to this report.