COLUMBIA (AP) A federal judge has put a stop, for now, to South Carolina’s pursuit of $100 million in fines the state says it’s owed by the federal government over an unfinished plutonium processing project.
U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs ruled that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims is the proper forum for the state’s money demands. Other aspects of the state’s lawsuit continue in her court, and she gave both sides until July 7 to mediate their dispute.
The unfinished mixed-oxide fuel facility in the Savannah River Site, a sprawling former nuclear weapons plant along the South Carolina-Georgia border, is intended to turn weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel. Under a nonproliferation agreement with Russia, each country has committed to turning 34 metric tons of plutonium, enough to arm 17,000 warheads, into fuel.
The project’s completion date has been pushed back numerous times, and it’s billions of dollars over budget, a situation Energy Department officials have blamed on design mistakes, shoddy work that had to be redone and escalating supply costs passed on by vendors.
South Carolina sued last year, in part demanding the federal government keep its promise to pay $1 million in fines per day — up to $100 million yearly — until either the facility meets its production goals or the plutonium is taken elsewhere for storage or disposal.
The judge agreed Feb. 14 with government attorneys who wanted the money dispute handled by the Federal Claims court, where judges and not juries decide cases. According to its website, that court “is authorized to hear primarily money claims founded upon the Constitution, federal statutes, executive regulations, or contracts.”
Since the United States lacks a designated long-term storage site for high-level radioactive waste, tons of unwanted plutonium have accumulated at the former nuclear weapons complex, including at least 7 tons of plutonium intended for the mixed-oxide fuel facility. The site also processes other nuclear waste into glass canisters, which have remained at Savannah River.
South Carolina’s lawsuit also demands that the government remove 1 metric ton of plutonium from the state, and halt any future shipments of nuclear material to the site. Childs ordered both sides to seek a resolution on these points.
The fuel facility’s future has long been in question as costs ballooned and deadlines passed. The Obama administration once mothballed the project, prompting another lawsuit by South Carolina in 2014.
The state yanked that case after the administration committed to funding the project through that fiscal year. But the Obama administration later said it would search for a less expensive disposal method.
President Obama sought to end the project last year, allocating money in his last budget to begin shutting it down. The Trump administration, still awaiting confirmation of Energy nominee Rick Perry, has yet to voice its opinion on the project’s future.
Russia’s position in the deal that created the need for the facility is also uncertain. Citing the “emerging threat to strategic stability as a result of U.S. unfriendly actions,” President Vladimir Putin suspended Russia’s end of the nonproliferation agreement, saying it could be restored if the U.S. pulls back forces deployed near Russia’s borders and revokes sanctions.