South Carolina’s top prosecutor has warned the Obama administration that he’s prepared to sue – again – if a nuclear fuel processing project isn’t made a priority.
In a letter sent earlier this month, Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz that they should discuss a path that preserves the mixed-oxide project – known as MOX – and thereby “avoids litigation.”
“I reiterate the importance of the MOX Facility and encourage you to carefully consider the commitments the United States has made to the State of South Carolina,” Wilson wrote in the letter, dated Sept. 4 and obtained by The Associated Press. “I would appreciate your assurance that, despite all current indications, DOE will abide by its legal duties, Congressional directives, and meet its statutory obligations to South Carolina.”
The project at the Savannah River Site is part of a nonproliferation agreement between the United States and Russia, with each country agreeing to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium – an amount that officials have said is equal to 17,000 warheads. Slated to open next year, it would be the first of its kind in the United States.
South Carolina sued the Obama administration last year after officials said they wanted to shutter the project, citing billions in cost overruns and project delays. In its lawsuit, the state said that the federal government had made a commitment to South Carolina and shouldn’t mothball the effort, which would result in lost jobs for the state, also noting that the administration legally couldn’t use money intended to build the plant to shut it down.
The state dropped the suit several months later, when the administration committed to funding the project through that fiscal year. But in the months since, the administration has said it’s searching for a cheaper way to dispose of the plutonium, like immobilizing it in glass or processing it in different kinds of reactors.
In his letter, Wilson says that the state initially opposed the effort, based on a fear that it wouldn’t ultimately be finished and that tons of weaponized plutonium brought to South Carolina to be processed in the plant would end up staying here permanently. Now, Wilson wrote, the federal government appears to be dismissing its obligations to the state “as the legally binding requirements that they are,” and, as such, he must be prepared to take action yet again.
Energy Department officials did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the letter.
Nuclear weapons experts: Abandon MOX fuel plans
Federal energy officials should abandon the expensive and unfinished plutonium recycling facility at Savannah River Site, according to a group of nuclear weapons experts.
The mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility, known as MOX, is designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power reactors, but it is over budget and behind schedule.
“In addition to saving money, ending the current MOX program would be in the nation’s national security interest,” the group said in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz this week.
The letter, signed by former diplomats and defense officials with ties to Republican and Democratic administrations, is the latest political hurdle for the troubled MOX program, which has stalled while officials look for cheaper and faster alternatives to destroying 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium.
Instead of recycling the plutonium for the commercial market, the experts recommend diluting it and disposing of it as waste.
The U.S. has opposed such reprocessing in other countries “because of the obvious proliferation danger of putting nuclear-weapons explosive materials into commercial channels,” the group wrote.
Among the 14 nuclear weapons experts who signed the letter are former Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Robert Einhorn, former National Intelligence Council Chairman Joseph Nye, former United Nations Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and Henry Sokoski, former Defense Department deputy for nonproliferation policy.
More than $4billion already has been spent on MOX. By one estimate, it would cost another $47.5billion to finish building and operate the facility through 2044, a 58percent increase over previous estimates. A separate report lowered the cost estimate for MOX but found that diluting and disposing of the surplus plutonium would still be cheaper.