South Carolina sues Energy Department over nuclear fuel project

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Supporters of a South Carolina nuclear fuel project say the Obama administration's move to halt work there would leave weapons-grade plutonium onsite and allow Russia to break a nuclear arms agreement.

The state of South Carolina sued the Energy Department on Tuesday over the decision to mothball the mixed-oxide fuel program at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., a Clinton-era project that has been saddled with overruns and missed deadlines.

MOX, as the project is known, is supposed to convert plutonium from decommissioned nuclear weapons into usable commercial reactor fuel. But the administration is evaluating other methods because MOX is facing $3 billion in cost overruns and wouldn't be ready until 2019, three years behind schedule, according to a February report by the Government Accountability Office.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said at a briefing on the president's budget request this month that MOX's $30 billion lifecycle cost was too much to justify without considering other options.

"They are continuing to work with the contractors to see if we can find some other way of doing this to get a substantial cost reduction on the MOX path, but we are continuing to look at other pathways as well," he said.

Still, the administration's proposal to put the MOX program, which began construction in 2007, on "cold standby" has attracted attention on Capitol Hill.

Several lawmakers, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu and South Carolina's Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, expressed their concern that the administration was backing down from a nuclear weapons agreement with Russia in a March letter to Moniz.

"We remind you that under the terms of this agreement, MOX is the only acceptable disposition path for the 34 metric tons of American weapons grade plutonium," said the bipartisan group of seven senators, referring to a 2010 update to the bilateral Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement between the U.S. and Russia.

Moniz, however, has stressed that the administration is "committed to disposition of those 34 metric tons plutonium," which is the same amount of plutonium that Russia must dispose of.

Axing MOX wouldn't give Russia the right to scrap the agreement anyway, said Greg Jones, a senior defense policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. He said that's because the 2010 disposition deal allows Russia and the U.S. to use other methods — though it's not clear what that method would be apart from MOX.

"Certainly not using MOX raises the question of how the U.S. would dispose of its [plutonium], but it does not void the agreement," Jones said.

South Carolina politicians say that's a major concern. About 13 metric tons of plutonium currently sit at the MOX site.

"Ensuring a pathway out of the state for this weapons-grade plutonium is a top priority for me," said Graham, who vowed to use his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to pepper the administration with questions about the project.

This isn't the first time the Obama administration and lawmakers have tussled over MOX.

Obama proposed slashing MOX funding in his fiscal 2014 budget, leading Graham to place a procedural hold on Obama's nomination of Moniz. The president and the South Carolina Republican agreed to explore alternatives to break the stalemate.

Still, Moniz is seen as being a fan of the program, as he helped get the program off the ground when he served in the Energy Department under former President Bill Clinton.

It's likely that Moniz is waiting for the administration's evaluation of other disposal options to end before announcing support for the MOX program, financial blemishes and all, Charles Ferguson, president of the nuclear security group Federation of American Scientists, told the Washington Examiner.

"I strongly suspect that the U.S. government is just pausing on the MOX disposition program, and I would not be surprised to see the U.S. program rise again like a phoenix from ashes in the coming months," Ferguson said.

But that's still uncertain, warned South Carolina's Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. She compared the situation to the proposed permanent nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which the Obama administration pulled the plug on in 2009.

"This is President Obama saying that he's going to follow the rules that he wants to follow and ignore the rules he doesn't want to follow, and it's hurting the people of South Carolina," Haley said, as she pointed out that stopping the project would affect 1,800 employees.

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