A federal appeals court has given the federal government the go-ahead to begin closing down construction of an experimental nuclear project in Aiken County.
The three-judge panel on Tuesday reversed a lower judge’s hold which prevented the U.S. Energy Department from ending work on the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility until the state of South Carolina’s lawsuit could be heard. All three judges agreed with the decision.
If completed, MOX would convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors. However the project ran into massive delays and cost overruns and now its future looks increasingly unlikely as the Trump administration moves to suspend the program. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has called for MOX to be abandoned in favor of potentially converting the site into plutonium “pit” manufacturing to assemble nuclear warhead cores.
The state filed the lawsuit to protect more than 2,000 construction workers or MOX employees who will lose their job if the project is abandoned. However, attorneys for the Energy Department and its partner agency overseeing the project National Nuclear Security Administration have challenged whether the state has grounds to get involved in federal policy decisions.
A federal judge agreed in June to prevent the Trump administration from shutting down work until the case could be heard. However, Tuesday’s ruling by the appeals court reverses that.
Nuclear watchdog Tom Clements — a critic of the project — noted Congress agreed this summer to slash MOX’s annual budget from $335 million to $220 million and allowed the Energy Department to the funds for a shutdown. “From any angle you look at it, the MOX project is really on the last ropes,” he said. “DOE is bent on terminating construction and Congress is allowing that to go forward.”