Gov. Nikki Haley said Wednesday she’s working on a strategy to fight for a plutonium fuel factory in South Carolina that the federal government wants to shelve amid cost overruns.
During a news conference, Haley suggested the Obama administration is reneging on a commitment to build the mixed oxide fuel plant at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex near Aiken.
President Obama has proposed putting the plant on “cold standby.’’ The factory is about $3 billion over budget and has no customers for plutonium-blended nuclear fuel that would be made there. It also is years behind schedule, but leaders in South Carolina say it remains a worthwhile project that should be funded as originally planned.
“When you suddenly say, ’Oops we started this, and, by the way, we don’t have the money to continue it,’ yes, I’m going to get my back up,” Haley said.” We are fighters in South Carolina. We fight for what’s right. So we’re working with the attorney general on what that fight can look like.”
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The project, popularly called MOX, has been touted as a jobs producer as well as a reasonable way to get rid of unneeded weapons grade plutonium. About 1,000 people are expected to be employed at the MOX plant, which has been under construction since 2007.
Haley made her comments Wednesday after three members of the state’s congressional delegation asked her to explore legal avenues to keep the mixed oxide fuel project going at SRS.
In a letter that surfaced Tuesday, Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson said the country must complete the fuel factory to comply with an international nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Russia.
The United States and Russia each have agreed to get rid of about 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium so that the material can never be used for atomic bombs. The U.S. has proposed doing that by building a mixed oxide fuel plant. The Russians are working on a similar program.
Tom Clements, a long-time SRS watcher and critic of the MOX program, said there are other ways to get rid of excess weapons-grade plutonium that could comply with the Russian agreement. The U.S. could encase the excess plutonium in glass at an SRS factory that already is operating, he said. It also could send some of the material to a disposal facility in New Mexico, he said. Opponents of the MOX plant cite environmental concerns with making plutonium-blended fuel, which they say could be dangerous.
“I don’t think there is a legal toehold on any front for the state to try to push the federal government to continue with the failed MOX program,’’ Clements said.
A lawsuit is possible should Attorney General Alan Wilson consider that to be worthwhile, but Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said legal action isn’t definite.
““We are currently working with the attorney general’s office and exploring any and all legal options in regard to this issue,’’ Mayer said. “The governor has been actively engaged with this situation from the start and is committed to finding a solution – whether inside of a courtroom or not.”