Seeking to save a plutonium fuel factory from the budget ax, South Carolina sued the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday for placing the partially finished plant on hold after committing billions of dollars to construct the jobs-producing project near Aiken.
Gov. Nikki Haley said President Barack Obama is going back on a deal to build the mixed oxide fuel factory, provide employment and limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia.
“We will fight back hard, and we will do whatever it takes to make sure they understand that they have messed with the wrong state,” Haley said during a news conference outside her office to announce the lawsuit.
In its proposed budget for 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy says it will place the mixed oxide fuel project on “cold standby” because of ever-escalating expenses that make the factory unsustainable.
The fuel factory, known as MOX, is at least $3 billion over budget. It could cost taxpayers $30 billion if work continues and the plant begins operating, federal records show. Construction costs alone are estimated at $7.7 billion. The project, being built at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex, also is years behind schedule.
Officials with the Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment about Tuesday’s lawsuit. State Sierra Club leaders blasted the lawsuit as a waste of time and money. They oppose using plutonium to make nuclear fuel, in part because of safety concerns.
But during the news conference attended by Republican leaders, Haley and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said the federal government’s plan to mothball the MOX plant is an example of how federal nuclear decisions are hurting South Carolina.
The project, under construction since 2007, would turn bomb-grade plutonium collected from across the country into fuel for commercial power reactors. Unless it is built, the Savannah River Site could be stuck with the excess plutonium, a potentially deadly nuclear material, project supporters contend. State leaders from both major political parties have backed the project for more than a decade.
Haley and Wilson said the Obama administration’s plan follows a decision four years ago to abandon a national high-level nuclear waste dump in Nevada. Many had counted on the Yucca Mountain facility to dispose of atomic refuse from the Savannah River Site and atomic power plants across the country, including South Carolina.
As for MOX, federal law does not allow the Obama administration to divert funds for construction of the project in 2014 to shutting it down, the lawsuit says. The suit asks a court to block federal agencies from shuttering the project.
“This is President Obama saying that he’ll follow the rules he wants to follow and he’s not following the rules he doesn’t want to follow,” Haley told reporters. “When you’re hurting the people of South Carolina, we’re not going to stand back and take it.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who is the attorney general’s father, said the government’s MOX decision jeopardizes jobs at the Savannah River Site for a project that is about 60 percent complete. The project already employs about 1,800 people, the lawsuit said. The government has committed $4 billion to the project already, the suit said.
Of equal concern, Wilson said, is an international nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Russia to neutralize 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. The U.S. needs to make good on its commitment to build the MOX plant to get rid of the excess plutonium, he said. Russia has agreed to neutralize an equal amount of bomb-grade plutonium under the 2000 accord.
“This is not a good time for us to be renegotiating with the Russian government,” Rep. Wilson said, referring to turmoil in that country.
Environmentalists discounted many of those arguments, noting that the non-proliferation agreement with Russia allows for changes. They also said utilities have been reluctant to support using any of the fuel created at the MOX plant, which now has no customers.
The Sierra Club’s Susan Corbett said the DOE should have built facilities to turn the surplus plutonium into a glass waste, rather than make fuel. Corbett also blasted Haley and the state’s Republican leadership for demanding federal money for a fuel factory, but turning down other federal dollars.
“It is duplicitous of them on one hand to be complaining about federal spending, and on the other hand, calling for more of this extravagant, unnecessary federal project,” Corbett said. “It is very hypocritical to be not willing to take federal money for people with health care and other human needs, and continue propping up an extraordinarily expensive project for the sake of a few jobs.”
Haley said that’s not a fair argument because the government made a commitment to South Carolina.
The attorney general’s lawsuit said the DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration plan to use construction funds to shut down the plant -- but that’s illegal. A federal law also requires that the plant be built, the suit says.
“Our complaint asserts that the administration’s misuse of federal funds violates the fundamental tenet of separation of powers and it explicitly violates a federal statute prohibiting executive agencies from (spending) funds for purposes unauthorized by Congress,” Attorney General Wilson said.
Video prepared by the SC Governor Nikki HAley’s office.