A judge on Thursday stopped the federal government from suspending construction of a nuclear fuel factory at the Savannah River Site atomic weapons complex near Aiken.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs damages federal efforts to walk away from the over-budget and behind-schedule mixed oxide fuel project, which has been on the drawing boards for more than two decades and is currently under construction. The mixed oxide fuel plant would turn excess weapons grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.
The U.S. Department of Energy has been trying in recent years to suspend the project, saying it is expensive and no longer necessary to dispose of the plutonium. The latest federal plan is to ship excess plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear bombs, to a New Mexico site for disposal.
Childs' order temporarily halts the federal shutdown process until arguments can be heard in court over whether to keep the effort going.
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S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has sued the DOE, arguing that failing to complete the fuel project, known as MOX, will hurt the state’s economy, cost people jobs and leave South Carolina with tons of deadly plutonium.
“We are very pleased with the judge’s ruling today,” Wilson said in a statement Thursday night. “The court’s decision is based upon the rule of law and common sense. This is a victory for the people of South Carolina and the safety of all South Carolinians.”
U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry had issued a stop-work order for the MOX project that would have taken effect Monday, according to Wilson's office.
Wilson’s statement went on to say “The MOX Project has been many years in the making and has the full support of Congress and the South Carolina delegation. We are delighted that the federal government has been stopped from terminating MOX and firing its workers.’’
Savannah River Site Watch's Tom Clements, an opponent of the MOX project, said he was disappointed in the judge’s ruling Thursday. Clements says the project isn't necessary.
“The judge doesn’t understand what deep trouble the project is in,’’ he said, noting that building the MOX project doesn’t necessarily mean South Carolina will get rid of all surplus plutonium at SRS.
The project is about $12 billion over budget and years behind schedule, but employs hundreds of people who would be out of work if the project shuts down, boosters say. It has been touted as a way to provide new missions for SRS.
Federal officials say they won't forget SRS in shutting down the MOX plant. They have proposed converting it to a factory to make plutonium pits for nuclear weapons.