The U.S. Department of Energy could have to pay South Carolina $1 million a day in fines if it fails to remove or convert one metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel at Savannah River Site by the end of the year.
The fines, capped at $100 million in 2016, could go into effect Jan. 1, according to an amended version of the Bob Stump National Defense Authorization Act that outlines penalties the federal government would face if SRS’ Mixed-Oxide facility misses production milestones.
According to the legislation, which was originally passed in 2003, the Energy Department must pay South Carolina $1 million a day if one metric ton of mixed-oxide fuel is not produced at SRS until the milestone is either achieved or one metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium is removed from the state.
Tom Clements, the director of the watchdog group SRS Watch, said Monday that his organization “strongly supports” removing plutonium from South Carolina for storage elsewhere since congressional reports show MOX is years behind schedule and $6 billion over its original budget.
“DOE must not be allowed to leave plutonium in South Carolina forever due to its total failure to carry out the MOX project,” Clements said in an e-mail.
Mark Powell, a spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, did not return an e-mail seeking comment on whether the state would enforce the penalty.
“DOE is working to meet its commitment to the state of South Carolina,” Francie Israeli, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, said in an e-mail Monday.
Israeli said that in April, the department issued the final environmental impact analysis for disposing of up to 13.1 metric tons of surplus plutonium.
In 2015, at least three reports were issued on whether MOX is the best option for fulfilling a 2000 treaty the U.S. signed with Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Two studies favored shipping down-blended plutonium to a New Mexico nuclear waste repository for burial as an option that could save the federal government billions.
“Once a preferred alternative is identified, DOE will announce its preference in a Federal Register notice and publish a Record of Decision for disposition of this plutonium,” Israeli said.
While the department completes this process, Israeli said it plans to resume plutonium down-blending operations in early 2016 at SRS and “emplace the down-blended plutonium at WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico) after it becomes fully operational.”
Kelly Trice, the president of CB&I Power, wrote in a letter last month to Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., that his company has about 1,800 people working on the MOX facility, which he defined as more than two-thirds complete, at just over 68 percent.
“When we say the project is over 68 percent complete, we mean what most people would think of as complete – engineered, procured, and physically built,” he wrote. “That’s according to a certified Earned Value Management System in place measuring progress.”
Trice said his company has been able to build and complete 4 percent of the structure every year at $345 million and that its goal next year is to exceed 75 percent complete.
“We intend on continuing construction of this critical facility to the plutonium disposition mission as long as Congress authorizes and funds the work,” Trice said. “Our hallmarks are safety, quality and professionalism, and we will continue bringing those attributes every day as we support our client and finish the job.”
MOX construction, which began in 2007, was projected to cost $1.7 billion in 1999. That total was revised in 2013 to $7.7 billion.