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 — A decade-long nuclear project at the Savannah River Site was temporarily saved Thursday, as a federal judge seeks to decide whether the U.S. Department of Energy can end the troubled construction process that has already cost taxpayers more than $7.6 billion

U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs issued an injunction to stop the federal agency from ending the decade-long project, known as the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility or MOX. 

The decision comes less than three weeks after S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop President Donald Trump's administration from pulling the plug on the project that is billions of dollars over budget and decades behind schedule. 

The result of the lawsuit may well decide whether the federal government continues to pour money into a project that federal officials say is no longer needed, and if thousands of construction jobs that Wilson and other politicians want to save remain in Aiken County. 

“The MOX project has been many years in the making and has the full support of Congress and the South Carolina delegation," said Wilson, who is currently running for reelection. "We are delighted that the federal government has been stopped from terminating MOX and firing its workers." 

The Department of Energy has tried to put an end to the costly nuclear project for more than four years now. Two presidential administrations have tried to end federal funding for the unfinished facility that is intended to turn Cold War-era nuclear weapons into fuel for power plants. 

In past years, those attempts to end the project were rebuffed by Sen. Lindsey Graham and other members of South Carolina's congressional delegation who kept the federal funding flowing to the project's contractors. 

Earlier this year, however, members of Congress gave the Department of Energy the authority to halt construction if the agency could find another way to deal with 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium at half the cost. 

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry released that alternative plan last month. It still requires the plutonium to be processed at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. But instead of being turned into fuel for commercial power plants, it would be mixed with another material and stored nearly half a mile below the New Mexico desert. 

The price tag for that, according to the Department of Energy, is far less than the $48 billion it is now estimated to cost to finish the MOX facility and process the plutonium into fuel. 

But Child's order suggests the Department of Energy may need to conduct another environmental study to accompany the new proposal. The federal agency, according to the order, may also need to provide more evidence that it can actually process the plutonium and obtain legal approval to store the material at the federal facility in New Mexico. 

Wilson and other South Carolina politicians, like Gov. Henry McMaster, continue to attack the alaternative plan in order to save the MOX project that has been plagued by unfinished designs and wasted material. 

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Wilson said the alternative plan — known as dilute and dispose — would "doom" the state into becoming "the nation’s permanent dumping ground for plutonium." 

Even more, Wilson frets over the loss of the construction jobs, which were set to be terminated on June 11 had the injunction not been approved. 

"The State argued that if that were allowed to happen, the workers building the MOX plant would move on and the plant would be dead forever," a press release from Wilson's office said. 

The alternative plan for dealing with the plutonium would also employ a large number of people at Savannah River Site.

According to a Department of Energy report, there would be hundreds of employees needed to handle and process the radioactive material before it is shipped to New Mexico. Those jobs would begin to ramp up in 2020 and would reach a high of roughly 255 positions from 2030 to 2046. 

It's now up to the federal judge to decide which course to take. 

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