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MOX decision prompts lawsuit

Posted: March 25, 2014 - 2:01pm

COLUMBIA — South Carolina is suing the U.S. Department of Energy for its decision to wind down a plutonium disposition construction project that began in 2007.

On March 18, S.C. Attorn-ey General Alan Wilson and other state officials held a press conference to lay out their objections to the decision to place the Savannah River Site’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, known as MOX, on “cold standby” with reduced funding.

Wilson called the administration’s decision illegal and unconstitutional, arguing that it violates the separation of powers, and uses federal funds for purposes Congress has not unauthorized.

The MOX project has cost nearly $4 billion so far, while the its estimated life-cycle cost has grown to $30 billion. The project is part of an international nonproliferation agreement. It uses weapons-grade plutonium to produce commercial reactor fuel.

The Department of Energy’s 2015 budget request says that the MOX fuel approach became more expensive than officials expected, despite potential contract restructuring and other efforts.

While the project is on standby, officials will study whether it’s more efficient to pursue other options to complete the plutonium disposition mission.

During the press conference Gov. Nikki Haley criticized President Obama.

“We are standing here with a unified force to say we will fight. We will fight back hard,” she said. “And we will do whatever it takes to make sure they understand they have messed with the wrong state.”

Tom Clements, an adviser for the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, said the suit was for show.

“The lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money and is simply political theater that will accomplish nothing,” he said.

He said South Carolina contributes no funding, and has neither a regulatory role nor legal grounds to force the Department of Energy to continue MOX.

Earlier, Clements had had welcomed the decision to move into cold standby.He said public interest groups had warned for years that MOX was unsustainable.

“Disposal as waste is the surest way to get plutonium out of the state while the MOX option, which has no customers, is a guaranteed way to make sure that the plutonium will stay in the state for a lengthy period of time,” said Clements.

After the press conference, Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, said he was worried the 1,800 MOX workers would leave the area in search of new jobs.

“If we lose that expertise, then if for some reason we decide to start back up, it will be difficult to get that talent back,” said Smith. “We will lose the economy that that creates.”

Wilson’s complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina Aiken Division. The lawsuit targets the energy department, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Edward Bruce Held, an agency official.

The U.S. and Russia entered into an agreement to consolidate and dispose of both countries’ surplus weapons-grade plutonium.

Clements noted that it’s not a treaty, so it’s not a law.

“There is a clause in the agreement that allows for it not to be carried out if insufficient funds are available, which is the situation that DOE now faces,” he said.

The MOX action marks the second time South Carolina officials have said the Obama administration reversed course on nuclear waste disposal activities. Earlier, a decision to halt plans to send waste to Yucca Mountain incensed state officials.

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