The federal government won a court victory Tuesday that could lead to the shutdown of a nuclear construction project that is billions of dollars over-budget and years from completion at the Savannah River Site near Aiken.
In an afternoon ruling, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that had halted the U.S. Department of Energy’s effort to quit building the mixed oxide fuel factory after a decade of construction. The ruling Tuesday sets aside a June 7 preliminary injunction that had stopped government plans to halt construction.
The decision was a blow to advocates of the plant in South Carolina. Key politicians have pushed to keep building the project -- known as MOX -- because it will be a jobs provider and a way to get rid of surplus plutonium at the Savannah River Site weapons complex near Aiken. At one point, as many as 2,000 jobs were touted for the project.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who sued to force the government to keep building the plant, wasn’t happy with the ruling Tuesday. Wilson says failing to build the plant would mean plutonium, a deadly nuclear material, would be left in South Carolina.
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While the ruling Tuesday lifts the injunction, Wilson’s lawsuit has not been decided.
“I’m disappointed in the Fourth Circuit panel’s decision,’’ Wilson said in a statement. “It is inconsistent with governing law and foreshadows the court’s opinion in the case. The state intends to vigorously contest the opinion when it is issued to protect the State’s interests and prevent the Department of Energy from turning the State into the dumping ground for plutonium.’’
Opponents of the plant, which is at least $12 billion over budget, said the court’s decision Tuesday could be the beginning of the end of the project. They say it is a waste of taxpayer money and is a dangerous way to get rid of surplus bomb-grade plutonium when other means are available.
The DOE, after years of pumping up the plant, now says it isn’t worth continuing. The project has been beset with delays and questionable workmanship.
“This is going to allow (the DOE) to start back up with termination,’’ said one of the project’s harshest critics, Tom Clements, who heads Savannah River Site Watch.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a national environmental group that opposes MOX, issued a late afternoon statement praising the court’s decision.
Critics say a plutonium fuel factory isn’t necessary because there are other ways of disposing of excess weapons grade plutonium. The government has more recently proposed shipping much of the excess plutonium at SRS to a site in New Mexico.
““Using this type of facility to dispose of plutonium that is no longer needed for U.S. nuclear weapons increases the risk that this material could fall into the hands of terrorists,” according to an email from Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Although the order is only a temporary stay, it indicates that the court will likely rule against the South Carolina in favor of the DOE’s plan to terminate the MOX project and pursue a far superior alternative.”