Federal officials must stop sending nuclear materials to South Carolina and should reroute a shipment of plutonium coming from Japan, Gov. Nikki Haley told the U.S. government in a letter.
The Republican governor’s demand is part of a long-running dispute with the federal government over where the materials should be stored. Last month, South Carolina sued the Energy Department, saying it had failed to remove plutonium from the state as promised.
“It is imperative to the safety of our citizens and our environment that South Carolina not allow this to happen,” Haley wrote to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, asking him to stop or reroute a shipment of 331 kilograms of plutonium coming to the Savannah River Site. “Therefore, stop shipment or re-route this defense plutonium. God bless.”
The shipment left Japan earlier this week, according to Savannah River Site Watch, a watchdog group that monitors activity related to the site. It is slated to arrive in South Carolina in about two months and, according to the group, consists of plutonium supplied to Japan in the 1960s and 1970s for nuclear reactor research purposes.
Tons of plutonium have accumulated over the years at the former nuclear weapons complex, where a facility to process such materials into commercial nuclear reactor fuel, as part of a nonproliferation agreement with Russia, remains incomplete. South Carolina is already suing the federal government over what the governor has called its broken promise to the state to finish the mixed-oxide fuel facility, which is billions over budget and behind schedule.
Because the facility wasn’t operational by a Jan. 1 deadline, the federal government was supposed to remove 1 metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina or pay fines of $1 million a day for “economic and impact assistance” – up to $100 million yearly – until either the facility meets production goals or the plutonium is taken elsewhere for storage or disposal.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in February, seeks the daily fines and removal of the plutonium. The Energy Department has not responded to the lawsuit in court, and an agency spokeswoman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The Obama administration has gradually scaled down funding for the project, proposing to mothball it in 2014, citing cost overruns and delays. That prompted an earlier lawsuit, with the state saying the federal government had made a commitment to South Carolina and couldn’t use money intended to build the plant to shut it down.
The state ultimately dropped the suit when the administration committed to funding the project through that fiscal year. But the administration has since said it’s searching for a less expensive way to dispose of the plutonium, like immobilizing it in glass or processing it in different kinds of reactors.
President Barack Obama’s most recent budget included minimal funding for the project. Lawmakers including Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a program supporter, have pledged to ensure it stays funded.