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SC officials seeking $200 million judgment against feds for failing to remove plutonium

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Signs are posted throughout the Savannah River Site with warnings for radioactive material and contamination in 2017. Michael Pronzato/Staff

The state of South Carolina is no longer interested in settling a multimillion-dollar lawsuit it lodged against the federal government in 2018 for failing to remove plutonium from the Savannah River Site near Aiken.

The Palmetto State's legal team on Friday requested a federal judge lift a stay — in place to engender talks — and summarily award the state the $200 million it is suing for.

"While a settlement would have been preferred to eliminate the risk inherent in litigation ... South Carolina is left with no choice but to move forward with litigation," reads a Friday court filing, which is signed by Randolph Lowell, the state's counsel.

The offensive push follows apparent struggles to hold the U.S. Department of Justice's attention and get DOJ officials to budge from a single "lowball" counteroffer, according to documents submitted by the state.

In a March 12 letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson described the "lack of" communication and engagement from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Justice Department as frustrating.

Wilson's office would not comment on the lawsuit Friday.

The demanded $200 million comprises two years of fines levied against the Energy Department for not removing weapons-grade plutonium from SRS, a 310-square-mile nuclear reserve south of Aiken.

Federal law mandated — beginning Jan. 1, 2016 — that DOE pay South Carolina $1 million for each day, up to 100 days per year, the department failed to process plutonium via the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility or remove 1 metric ton of it from the state.

The Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration terminated the never-completed MOX project on Oct. 10, 2018. Billions of dollars had already been funneled into the controversial venture by that time.

In other cases, South Carolina has argued the death of MOX would be detrimental, would make the state a permanent nuclear repository and would strand the plutonium already here. Approximately 12 metric tons of surplus plutonium was at the site as of mid-May, according to a NNSA official. Only some of that cache was bound for MOX.

The federal government and South Carolina had been wrapped in the negotiations process for months. The latest court-ordered status update, though, foreshadowed problems.

"The parties continue to engage in discussions to determine whether it is feasible to resolve this matter without further court involvement," read a May 28 filing.

In October 2018, Gov. Henry McMaster, Alan Wilson, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson and U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott met with President Donald Trump to discuss SRS and MOX, more specifically. The Justice Department was absent from that meeting, according to South Carolina's court filing.

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

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