About one month after South Carolina disclosed that settlement negotiations with the federal government had collapsed, the state is again urging a federal court to swiftly grant it a multimillion-dollar payout related to plutonium stored at the Savannah River Site, a sprawling nuclear reserve south of Aiken.
South Carolina's legal team, led by Attorney General Alan Wilson, on July 31 asked the U.S. Court of Federal Claims for a $200 million summary judgment in its favor, arguing money is and has been available for it.
The amount sought represents two years of fines levied against the U.S. Department of Energy for not removing weapons-grade plutonium from the Savannah River Site.
The South Carolina team said it had previously identified "multiple" sources for the payout, and Congress never prohibited the Energy Department from completing the payments.
Federal law mandated — beginning Jan. 1, 2016 — that DOE pay South Carolina $1 million for each day, up to 100 days per year, that the department failed to process plutonium at its Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility or get 1 metric ton of the material out of the state.
The MOX facility was designed to convert plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants, but it was still unfinished when DOE axed the project last year after more than a decade of work and billions of dollars spent. The department "chose to not remove the defense plutonium, thereby obligating it to provide the" payments, according to South Carolina's 10-page filing.
In sharp contrast to the Palmetto State's position, the Energy Department last summer argued it could not disburse the millions of dollars because funds for it were not in place.
"Because the United States is not liable in the absence of available appropriations, the court must dismiss the complaint," one of the federal government's court filings reads.
About 12 metric tons of surplus plutonium was kept at the site as of mid-May, according to a National Nuclear Security Administration official. Only some of that was bound for MOX. A majority of the plutonium meant for MOX never reached the site, the same NNSA official said.
South Carolina and the federal government had been in the negotiation process for months to resolve the dispute over the fines.
An impasse was recognized near the end of June, when the state's legal team said the U.S. Department of Justice wasn't engaging with them and had only provided a single "lowball" counteroffer.