A federal judge has halted South Carolina efforts to seek $100 million in fines over nuclear waste that remains at a U.S. Department of Energy facility in the state more than a year past the initial deadline.
The Associated Press reports U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs ruled the state needed pursue the fines through U.S. Court of Federal Claims. But she did allow other parts of the case to proceed, including the state’s claim that the federal government must remove plutonium currently held at the Savannah River Site (SRS). Mediation in the case is set for July.
At issue is an experimental facility under construction at SRS that would eventually convert weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel (MOX). The plant is years behind schedule due to cost overruns and technology delays and the Obama administration moved to shutter the project. South Carolina’s then-Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson filed a lawsuit arguing the project’s termination would violate a 1996 agreement between the state and federal government. The agreement required the material to be processed or removed by January 2016.
The agreement allowed the state to fine the Energy Department $1 million per day — but no more than $100 million per year — if the material remained by that date.
Plutonium was to be dedicated for the MOX project as part of a nonproliferation deal with Russia that would reduce the American warhead arsenal. The Obama administration sought to terminate the MOX project last year by setting aside money to shut it down, citing Energy Department estimates of a rising $12 billion cost. The White House instead favored “downblending” the plutonium and storing the waste in New Mexico. However Russia has pulled out of the deal, citing increased American presence in Eastern Europe and its lack of progress in repurposing old warhead material.
The Trump administration and Energy Secretary nominee Rick Perry have not yet said if they will continue those efforts or try to revive the project.