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Federal judge dismisses MOX, plutonium lawsuit S.C. filed two years ago

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The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site was more than a decade in the making when the National Nuclear Security Administration terminated the project in late 2018.

A federal judge has dismissed South Carolina's dormant Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility lawsuit, first filed in 2018, an apparent tying up of loose ends as crews prepare what's left of the failed project for a potential nuclear weapons future.

District Judge J. Michelle Childs on Feb. 20 terminated the state's case against the U.S. Department of Energy, its National Nuclear Security Administration and leadership there, satisfying a request made by the federal government about four months prior.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case – a choice made in October 2019 – so the favorable ruling of the lower court, an appellate court, stands, the federal government argued. Childs agreed.

The Palmetto State two years ago sued the Energy Department in a bid to prevent the multibillion-dollar MOX project from shutting down and, ultimately, keep the state itself from becoming a "permanent depository for defense plutonium."

About 11.5 metric tons of surplus plutonium is currently kept at the Savannah River Site, 30 minutes south of Aiken, where the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility was being built. MOX was designed to turn defense plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors.

Childs in June 2018 granted South Carolina its requested preliminary injunction, shielding MOX construction and vacating a partial work stoppage order. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, though, later ruled against Childs' decision, providing the National Nuclear Security Administration a runway to project cancellation.

MOX was more than a decade in the making when it was axed in October 2018. Its budget had ballooned; its timeline had dilated. The local project employed hundreds and hundreds of people.

The incomplete nuclear fuel plant could now become a plutonium pit factory, a place where nuclear weapon cores are produced en masse. The National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense in May 2018 recommended repurposing MOX for such an endeavor.

Other pits, they suggested, would be made in New Mexico at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The NNSA and MOX Services, the lead contractor at the MOX project, late last year reached a $186 million settlement, wrapping up and resolving other outstanding lawsuits.

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