SAVANNAH RIVER SITE - Federal legislators have secured enough money to make sure a nuclear fuel project at the Savannah River Site goes forward, according to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and members of the state's congressional delegation.
But the governmental leaders also told news reporters during a meeting with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz they want to ensure that the state doesn't become a permanent home for the world's nuclear trash.
Last fall, Haley invited Moniz to visit the Savannah River Site, a sprawling complex along the South Carolina-Georgia border. The 310-square mile site once produced components for nuclear weapons, but its primary focus now is on repurposing and cleanup.
Construction began in 2007 on the mixed-oxide fuel plant, known as MOX, which is part of an agreement with Russia to turn nuclear weapons into reactor fuel. The project is currently billions of dollars over budget and experienced years-long delays.
The Obama administration had said it wanted to put the project on hold, saying it was becoming too expensive and suggesting that another method be found to dispose of the plutonium, in order to uphold the agreement with Russia. South Carolina sued, saying money set aside to build the plant couldn't be used to shut it down, and the administration has committed to continuing construction into the fall, when the current fiscal year ends.
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott said that congressional budgets have the money to keep the mixed oxide fuel project from being suspended, at least in the next fiscal year.
"It won't go to cold standby as far as we can tell," Scott said, saying that a House proposal already includes money to keep the project open, while a continuing resolution that will likely be hashed out in the Senate will have the funding, too.
"There's money for MOX," Graham said. "There is no cheaper alternative to MOX, and now is not the time to break an agreement with the Russians."
Moniz said Monday that construction on MOX will continue at least into fall, adding that all sides need to come up with a long-term funding plan for the site.
"We need a trajectory that gives adequate funding in a sustained way for the project," Moniz said.
The leaders were questioned about talks with countries like Germany to bring highly radioactive waste to Savannah River for reprocessing. Haley and others reiterated the desire that South Carolina not become a permanent home for the world's trash, instead of a temporary one, in the absence of a repository like the one that had been planned at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
"What we do not need is for this state to continue to be a dumping ground," Haley said. "We'll continue to fight."
If certain goals for moving the waste aren't met, the senators said, the federal government could incur fines of $1 million per day.
"The waste is going to leave South Carolina as promised, and if it doesn't, the federal government is going to pay a fine," Graham said.