COLUMBIA — South Carolina has asked a federal judge to rule in the state’s favor in a lawsuit seeking to keep viable a nuclear reactor fuel project at the Savannah River Site near Aiken.
In court papers filed earlier this week, Attorney General Alan Wilson and other attorneys for the state asked for a decision without a trial.
The state is suing the U.S. Energy Department to keep the government from withdrawing funding from a multi-billion dollar project to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel. Gov. Nikki Haley has said that the closure of the mixed-oxide fuel project would harm an international nonproliferation agreement and eliminate hundreds of jobs.
The project known as MOX is intended to help the United States fulfill an agreement with Russia to dispose of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium – an amount officials have said is equal to 17,000 warheads. It would be the first of its kind in the United States.
Nearly $4 billion was budgeted more than a decade ago to build the plant, which is run by the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department. But construction costs have ballooned to nearly $8 billion, and federal officials now say the facility will cost about $30 billion over the years it’s in use.
The Obama administration proposed suspending the project. The administration has said MOX is too expensive and that another method needs to be found to dispose of the plutonium. Wilson has argued that proposal is unconstitutional, accusing the administration of using money Congress set aside for building MOX to shut it down. In essence, Wilson has argued, the proposed suspension is the administration’s way of stopping the program, which Congress has declined to defund.
“There is no legal path open to DOE or NNSA that would allow avoiding expending funds on construction of the MOX Facility and instead using these monies to place the MOX Facility into ‘cold standby,’” Wilson wrote in court papers filed this week.
Federal officials have until May 1 to respond to South Carolina’s motion. After a speech in Atlanta on Wednesday, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said he discussed with Russian officials the possibility of another way to dispose of the plutonium.
U.S. and Russian authorities considered other methods, including consuming the plutonium in fast reactors – which the U.S. doesn’t have – or mixing it with other waste to make it unusable. Moniz said he raised that possibility with the director general of Russia’s state atomic energy corporation.
“I must say he was open to that consultation,” Moniz said. “Now of course it’s a little more complicated in our dealings with Russia.”
Moniz said he hoped the crisis over Ukraine will not stop U.S. and Russian efforts to secure weapons-grade materials.
“We have to hope that no matter how all of the issues surrounding the Ukraine play out, that we don’t have as collateral damage a significant slowdown of this critically important work of continuing to get a hold of, to control, to eliminate when possible nuclear-weapons usable material around the world,” he said. “It remains central, certainly, to our security and to that of just about everybody else.”