Satisfied with recent federal assurances, South Carolina on Friday dropped a lawsuit intended to save a $10 billion nuclear fuel factory near Aiken from President Obama’s budget ax.
The U.S. Department of Energy said earlier this week that it will continue to build the mixed oxide fuel plant through the end of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 – which makes the need for the lawsuit less urgent.
Attorney General Alan Wilson filed the suit in March, arguing that the Energy Department could not shutter the plant this fiscal year because money had already been allocated for construction.
While the long-term future of the jobs-producing plant remains in jeopardy, the project is safe at least for the next six months.
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“Although I am disappointed that, once again, the state was forced to seek redress from the courts to protect the citizens of South Carolina from a federal government ignoring the rule of law, we are pleased with the outcome in this case,” Wilson said in a statement late Friday afternoon. “The federal government will continue moving forward, at least for now, on this project that is critical to security of our state and country.”
The plant has employed about 1,500 people since construction began in 2007, and state leaders say the jobs are important. Gov. Nikki Haley says the federal government should honor its commitment to South Carolina and finish the facility.
Commonly called MOX, the project is about 60 percent complete but billions of dollars over budget and in need of customers. The MOX plant would turn excess bomb-grade plutonium into fuel for use in commercial atomic power plants. So far, no power companies have agreed to take the fuel from the MOX plant, the first of its kind in the United States.
Recent estimates show the cost of the factory could reach $10 billion, just for construction. It was at one point projected to cost less than $5 billion. Over the life of the project, it could cost $30 billion, including operating expenses and other costs, according to recent federal estimates.
Citing the expense of the plant, the Energy Department announced two months ago that it wants to put the mixed oxide fuel factory on “cold standby,” a term that indicates plans are to stop all construction.
Plans were to begin the shut down this fiscal year, records show. Congress appropriated $343 million toward the project this year. But court documents filed Friday cited a federal letter confirming that the project won’t be abandoned this fiscal year. An official with the U.S. Department of Justice, which was negotiating with the state, was not available Friday.
MOX critic Tom Clements wasn’t surprised by the state’s decision to drop the suit, but he said the plant’s future is in severe doubt. The DOE still is moving to stop work on the facility after this fiscal year as it re-examines how to dispose of surplus plutonium.
“Long-term, the prognosis remains very grim for the MOX project because of unsustainable costs,” said Clements, an anti-nuclear activist who heads Savannah River Site Watch.
In addition to cost concerns, environmentalists worry that the MOX plant won’t efficiently neutralize or account for the plutonium being fed into the factory. They also are concerned about potential releases of plutonium, one of the most dangerous nuclear materials.
The plutonium to be used in the MOX plant comes from federal weapons facilities across the country. SRS has about 13 metric tons of plutonium on site. All told, about 34 metric tons are to wind up at SRS for the fuel plant. The plutonium being sent there is no longer needed for nuclear bombs and is to be neutralized as part of a non-proliferation agreement with Russia.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others have said not building the MOX plant could jeopardize that agreement, although other federal officials have said the Russians are amenable to changes.
For now, Wilson said the state must prepare for the next round of battles over the plant’s long-term future.
“While this is undoubtedly a victory for South Carolina, its citizens, and all Americans, the battle is not over,” Wilson’s statement said. “We must remain ever vigilant in continuing the fight to uphold the rule of law and ensure that this important program continues.”