South Carolina is suing the federal government over its plans to shut down a plant under construction in Aiken County that would convert weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel.
The Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, has been the subject of budget cut rumors for several years now as it’s years behind schedule and billions over budget. The facility is located at the former Savannah River Site weapons complex near Aiken. The United States decided to reprocess the weapons-grade plutonium in order to meet the terms of a 2000 nonproliferation treaty with Russia.
Gov. Nikki Haley insisted Tuesday that the Energy Department was breaking its promise to South Carolina.
“You’ve got millions of dollars that have been invested into this facility. And suddenly you’re going to say… ‘Never mind, it was a bad idea?'” Haley angrily told reporters on Tuesday. “You can’t do that when it affects the lives of people.”
The MOX plant has been on the radar of budget hawks and environmentalists for years, as its construction budget spiraled out of control. When construction began in 2007, MOX was originally projected to cost $4.8 billion and be complete by September 2016. But those projections were revised two years ago and the MOX plant is now expected to cost at least $7.7 billion by the time it opens in November 2019. According to the Energy Department’s new projections, the plant would cost a total of $30 billion after construction and an additional 15 years to convert 34 metric tons of bomb-grade plutonium to mixed oxide fuel. The agency said it lacks the funds to meet that price tag.
As part of the White House’s budget request for fiscal year 2015, the Energy Department has said it will put the MOX construction on “cold standby.” That would shift funds currently designated for construction into shutting down the project and researching other means for disposal of the plutonium.
Congressman Joe Wilson, a Republican who represents the area, said the agency is already shifting construction funds into closure this year. “The layoffs (at MOX) are imminent. This is real life,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “It really affects families and it has a ripple effect. Think of the restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses.”
State Attorney General Alan Wilson (Congressman Wilson’s stepson) said the Energy Department and National Nuclear Security Administration lack the ability to transfer funds in that fashion without approval from Congress. “This violation of the Constitution not only effectively terminates the MOX facility, it terminates approximately 1,800 jobs of South Carolina’s hard-working citizens,” he said in prepared remarks Tuesday.
However anti-nuclear groups said the move is not only legal, but long overdue.
Tom Clements, a Sierra Club nuclear advisor, said the Energy Department was within its rights to use the project funding as it saw fit. Clements said the entire project had ineffective management and cost controls. Duke Energy, the only utility that had pledged to use the reprocessed fuel, did not renew its contract in 2009.
“This is just one, big textbook case of how not to manage a complicated project,” he said. “And I think (the Energy Department) is right to put the brakes on this, because the costs are only going up.”
Clements called the state lawsuit political “theatrics.” “The money is simply not there,” he added. “If the governor is clamoring for more big-government spending, she needs to say where it’s coming from.”
He said there was no requirement in the nonproliferation treaty requiring the U.S. to convert the warheads to fuel. He maintained the Energy Department could dispose of the plutonium by other means and still be in compliance.
But Haley insisted that the Energy Department had committed to the South Carolina project. When asked how to account for the $30 billion cost, she said “it’s not my job to decide whether it’s too much. It’s my job to say you said you could do this and you got into a commitment to do this.”
“What this means is: agreements in (Washington) DC don’t matter,” she said. “Just because the Obama Administration decides that maybe this wasn’t a good idea, you can’t leave the people of South Carolina hanging like that.”