For 12 years, the federal government has been committed to building a plant that would process deadly weapons grade plutonium into fuel that can be used in commercial nuclear reactors. Now the administration wants to pull the plug on the project, which is being developed at Savannah River Site.
If unchallenged, South Carolina could end up with at least 13 tons of plutonium in addition to the massive amount of nuclear waste already contained at the site. South Carolina officials are right to take the feds to court. Savannah River Site is a production facility. It can't be allowed to become merely a waste dump for the federal government.
As noted in the Llewellyn King column on our Commentary page, the MOX facility had its origins in a nuclear non-proliferation treaty between the United States and Russia that sought to eliminate plutonium that could be used in weapons. It was motivated in part by the fear that terrorists could obtain the material, which was inadequately secured in facilities formerly managed by the Soviet Union.
As a result of the agreement, excess plutonium was shipped from defense sites around the nation to Savannah River Site in preparation for its production into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. The administration's unilateral decision to put the project on "cold stand-by" is the federal equivalent of termination. It means that Savannah River Site could be stuck with a lot of plutonium.
And the absence of a permanent repository, planned for Yucca Mountain, Nev., means that SRS is now the de facto storage site, not only for nuclear waste from its bomb-making days, but surplus plutonium. Evidently, the administration views SRS as a handy dumping ground to accommodate its nuclear policy, or lack of one.
A federal blue ribbon committee hinted at such a disposal role for Savannah River Site in a report last year. But the notion was rejected by a citizens advisory group for SRS, despite the inducements of additional federal projects there.
As with Yucca Mountain, the turnaround on MOX has been formulated in the absence of Congress. The MOX facility has repeatedly been given congressional approval through the budget process.
But this administration isn't overly concerned with the traditional protocols of American government, even though a federal appeals court advised them last year that it shouldn't have dismantled the Yucca project absent congressional consensus.
South Carolina, and Aiken County, took on the federal government over the Yucca decision. And now the state is suing the federal government over the MOX project. In each instance the administration has put an unwarranted burden on the states.
The action against the MOX project is evidence that the administration hasn't learned its lesson from the court of appeals. Perhaps Mr. Obama believes that his administration can ignore the courts as well as Congress.
As Gov. Nikki Haley said at last week's press conference, "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."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called the action "irresponsible and reckless," and promised to seek funding to keep the project alive. "Ensuring a pathway out of the state for this weapons-grade plutonium is a top priority for me."
It should be a priority for the federal government, based on its agreement with the state on the MOX facility. South Carolina has been a willing partner with the federal government for nuclear defense. But partnerships are supposed to be a two-way street. This administration's decision on the MOX project fails to recognize its responsibility to South Carolina, SRS or the people who work there.