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Judge dismisses MOX fraud lawsuit brought by former worker, Energy Department

MOX, High Flyer, Aerial (copy) (copy)

An aerial view of the incomplete Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, which is located at the Savannah River Site.

A former Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility employee who alleged federal funds were being misused at the nuclear fuel project, and that he was retaliated against for raising safety concerns, will not get the recompense he sought.

U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs last week dismissed Peter Michael Wanco Jr.'s lawsuit, which was also brought on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration, the weapons-and-nonproliferation agency that oversaw the failed MOX venture.

Childs has over the years handled a bevy of Savannah River Site litigation.

Wanco and the federal government sued MOX Services, the project's lead contractor, and Orano Federal Services, another big player, in January 2019. In a then-sealed complaint, the two teams were accused of running a false claims scheme, allegedly doling out relocation money, enticements, to workers who had zero plans of relocating.

Wanco in court documents claimed he received one of the relocation packages: $21,000, and he commuted to the Savannah River Site, south of Aiken, from Irmo, near Columbia. He also claimed he was forced to quit his job at MOX – a hostile place to work, the complaint suggested – for questioning inspection protocols. When he left, Orano Federal Services purportedly tried to claw back the relocation money.

Exactly how many relocation bonuses were distributed over the years is unclear; MOX, the child of a 2000s-era plutonium pact between the U.S. and Russia, was more than a decade in the making when the National Nuclear Security Administration axed it, beginning the months-long mothballing process.

The judgement filed in federal court Sept. 2 did not comment on or mention the accusations.

A separate order and opinion rendered by Childs, however, described the false claims allegations as "insufficient," unproven and lacking specificity. The retaliation claim, the judge continued, was inadequate, as well.

MOX was designed to transform metric tons of surplus defense plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors – court documents painted it as "one of the largest and most complex fabrication facilities in the world," had it been completed.

The project, cost bloated, overdue and a source of congressional indignation, was terminated in October 2018.

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