AIKEN - Aiken County filed suit Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Energy, asking the agency to finish building a plutonium-processing plant at Savannah River Site by 2009, even though making that deadline is unlikely.
County Attorney Robert Bell said the suit, which names the DOE and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, was filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia. The impetus is the DOE's failure to meet a congressional timetable issued in 2003, which requires the mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility, or MOX, be complete by 2009, according to the suit.
The facility would convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants as part of a nonproliferation agreement between the United States and Russia. Construction, however, has been continually delayed, in part because of safety concerns in Russia.
If the project falls more than a year behind schedule, according to the suit, the energy secretary must give a "corrective action plan" to Congress by Aug. 15.
"The secretary's 2005 report did not state whether construction was more than 12 months late, but it is clear from the report and the original plan that the project is more than 12 months behind," the county said in a statement on the lawsuit.
The secretary's report did state that the project's deadline would be extended but not by how much, which isn't permitted by Congress, according to the lawsuit.
If the MOX plant isn't complete by 2009, the energy secretary is supposed to suspend shipments of plutonium to SRS until he certifies that construction is back on track, the lawsuit states. The county also contends in the suit that Mr. Bodman must provide Congress with a list of options to remove plutonium shipped to the site after April 15, 2 002.
The suit seeks a halt to plutonium shipments and a list of removal options, neither of which has been provided to Congress. The county also wants the court to supervise the DOE's construction and operation of MOX to make sure it complies with the law.
"It's regretful that we had to go down this road, but in order to ensure the safety and protection of this community it's necessary," said county Councilman Chuck Smith, a vocal critic of the DOE's handling of MOX.
SRS observers agreed that the lawsuit might provide a wake-up call to the DOE, but they weren't sure how much the legal action would change.
"While I haven't seen the litigation and can't comment on it, we intend to comply with federal law," said Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a branch of the DOE that oversees MOX.
Concern over the storage of plutonium, a radioactive metal that is toxic and can cause cancer, has stirred concern for years. The state sued to block plutonium shipments in 2002 but was overruled in federal court.
Gov. Jim Hodges even threatened to lie in the road to block the shipments.
The county isn't likely to have much better luck, said Tom Clements, a former senior adviser with Greenpeace International who monitors SRS.
Officials originally planned to ship about 7 metric tons of plutonium from the DOE's Rocky Flats location in Colorado to the site, starting in 2000, according to DOE documents in the Federal Registry. It planned to ship an additional 4.6 metric tons from the Hanford location in Washington state between 2002 and 2005.
Mr. Clements estimated that at least 4 metric tons of plutonium had been shipped to SRS since 2002.
"There's no place to take that material, for one thing," Mr. Clements said.
Mal McKibben, the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, said the DOE had temporarily stopped shipping plutonium to the site but had plans to start again.
"This seems to be an effort, I guess, to hold DOE's feet to the fire," he said of the lawsuit. "My own feeling is you don't get DOE missions by attacking them."
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