South Carolina’s governor and top prosecutor are threatening to sue the federal government if it does not come up with a solution for a nuclear fuel project that has fallen years behind schedule.
Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson co-signed a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Monday stating that South Carolina intends to pursue a $1 million-per-day fine if no resolution is reached. The letter’s existence was first reported by the Aiken Standard on Monday.
It’s the latest development in the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility construction that is slowly underway at the Savannah River Site near Aiken. The MOX Project would convert old plutonium warheads into fuel for commercial reactors as part of a non-proliferation agreement with Russia. The facility was originally supposed to open next year, but delays and budget overruns have pushed back its completion at least three years while its costs have more than doubled.
A 2003 agreement between South Carolina and the Department of Energy requires at least one ton of plutonium be enriched by January 2016 or else removed from the state. If neither occurred, South Carolina would be entitled to $1 million each day past January, up to a $100 million maximum each year. The law only allows for the fine is funds are appropriated, however.
“When a promise is made, a promise is kept. So the federal government needs to do something,” Haley told reporters on Tuesday. “This was something that they made an agreement with the state of South Carolina… And so we’re just going to actively remind them that they’re coming up on the deadline of getting charged $1 million a day.”
“Rather than the money, I want them to take away these weapons or process it,” Haley said. “At the end of the day, that’s what the actual contract was about actually dealing with the plutonium that’s sitting there. And the fact that they’re not doing that is a concern.”
It is extremely unlikely the Energy Department will meet the January 1 deadline, given the facility is not scheduled to begin enriching plutonium for at least another three years and there are no plans to remove the waste from the site in the meantime. The agency has not responded to the letter beyond a statement through National Nuclear Security Administration spokeswoman Francie Israeli that “The department continues to work to meet its commitments.”
South Carolina sued after the Obama Administration indicated its support for shuttering the project. The state argued the Energy Department lacked the authority to shut the project down without appropriated money from Congress. The lawsuit was dropped after the Energy Department agreed to continue funding the construction.
State political leaders are worried about the potential 1,800 jobs that could be lost and the tons of plutonium still remaining on-site if the facility does not open.