MOX facility

The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site in April 2018. Less than 50 percent of the facility is completed and the U.S. Department of Energy wants to shut down the project that has already cost $7.2 billion in taxpayer money. High Flyer/Provided

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's Republican leaders are pursuing a last-ditch effort to save a federal nuclear project at the Savannah River Site that is billions of dollars over budget and decades behind schedule. 

Attorney General Alan Wilson sent a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Tuesday informing him that the state planned to sue the federal government over the abandonment of the project that was intended to turn Cold War-era nuclear weapons into fuel for power plants. 

This isn't the first time South Carolina has sued the Department of Energy over the troubled nuclear project, known as MOX or the mixed oxide fuel fabrication facility.

But the pending lawsuit comes at a pivotal time in the project's history. President Donald Trump's administration, like President Barack Obama's team before it, wants to dump the MOX program and implement a new strategy to deal with 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. 

Wilson's threat of litigation follows more diplomatic attempts to convince federal leaders to drop their plans to kill the nuclear project that is decades in the making.

Gov. Henry McMaster attended a private dinner with the president at the White House on Monday evening. Photos from the dinner showed McMaster seated directly across the table from Perry. Brian Symmes, the governor's spokesman, said McMaster discussed the MOX project with Perry at the dinner.

But that seems to have done little to soften the Department of Energy's position. 

"Each and every time the governor has had an opportunity to advocate on behalf of the people of South Carolina, he has taken it," Symmes said. "He will continue to work directly with the attorney general to make sure South Carolina's interests are protected." 

Construction on the MOX facility near Aiken began in 2007 with an estimated cost of $4.8 billion and a completion date of 2016. Since then, the price tag for the project has ballooned to more than $17 billion and the estimated completion date has slid to 2048. 

More than half a dozen federal reports and congressional testimony showed the project's contractors failed to produce a reliable schedule, started construction with just a fraction of design finished, and let pipes and other material corrode in storage. 

The Department of Energy released a report earlier this month that laid out an alternative plan to mix the plutonium with another material at the Savannah River Site and ship it to a separate facility in the New Mexico desert where it will be stored in salt-lined caverns nearly half a mile underground.

That new proposal, known as dilute and dispose, is estimated cost less than half of what it would take to finish the MOX plant and process all of the plutonium into commercial fuel.

South Carolina leaders, according to Wilson's letter, plan to challenge those findings in order to save the unfinished MOX facility and the hundreds of jobs it promised to create.  

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and other members of South Carolina's congressional delegation have questioned whether the Department of Energy could actually succeed in storing the plutonium in New Mexico. They remain skeptical that federal officials can obtain the permits to ship and store all of the plutonium there. 

"DOE has chosen a path that would render South Carolina the nation's 'dumping ground' for plutonium," Wilson wrote in his letter to Perry. 

Former Department of Energy officials and other scientists say the process is already proven to work and far less risky than turning the plutonium into fuel for the country's power plants. 

"The dilute and dispose process has already been used for about 5 metric tons of plutonium. It's already established," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union for Concerned Scientists. "It's the simplest process available. So I don't think there are any technical issues going forward." 

State officials have less than a month to stop the Department of Energy from shutting down the project. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.