Energy Department must respond to MOX lawsuit by May 2

The Department of Energy has until May 2 to respond to a lawsuit filed by South Carolina against the agency concerning missed deadlines at the Savannah River Site MOX facility. The state is seeking $100 million.

The Department of Energy has until May 2 to respond to South Carolina’s multimillion dollar lawsuit against the department concerning a missed milestone at the Savannah River Site’s MOX facility.

The facility is designed to meet an agreement with Russia by converting 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel.

But the project has suffered cost overruns and delays, including a missed deadline that required the Energy Department to either, by Jan. 1, remove 1 metric ton of the plutonium from the state or process it through the MOX facility. The facility is still being constructed and none of the plutonium intended for the MOX program has been removed from the state.

The penalty for missing the deadline is $1 million a day with an annual cap of $100 million, according to a 2003 agreement.

After a month of waiting for the Energy Department to acknowledge the penalty, the state filed a suit on Feb. 9 against Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and others. The Energy Department has repeatedly refused to comment since the case is still open but is now expected to acknowledge the lawsuit by May 2.

South Carolina is also entrenched in a local battle over the money. On April 18, the state denied a request from the S.C. Regional Development Alliance to intervene on the lawsuit.

The group serves, among others, Barnwell and Allendale counties — two of the three counties that house SRS, and believes the impoverished area’s 60-plus year commitment to the site should be considered.

But the state feels differently about it.

“The position of the Alliance is no different than the position of other citizens in the State, and without any real, legally protectable interest to differentiate themselves, intervention must be denied,” the state wrote in its response.

Since the request has been denied, the decision is now left up to a judge. There has been no timetable set for when a ruling will be handed down.

Danny Black, the president of the economic group, said the group will continue its fight to intervene.

“We feel that our involvement is necessary to ensure a lasting resolution,” Black said, adding that the plutonium is actually stored within a few miles of a 1600-acre Advanced Technology Park owned by the Alliance.

As money battles continue in the state, S.C. congressmen are still trying to remove the MOX project from the chopping block. The federal budget proposal looks to terminate the project and switch to an alternative that would use SRS facilities to dilute the plutonium, package it, and send it to a federal repository.

The Energy Department believes the method, known as downblending, would be cheaper than MOX. But the state’s congressmen, including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, have testified that there are too many uncertainties to figure out before a switch can be made.

“If you think you’re gonna cancel the MOX program and not have a viable path forward,” Graham said during Senate committee meeting earlier this month, “then you’re gonna be in for a rude awakening.”

Reach Derrek Asberry at 843-937-5517. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry