The announcement that the U.S. Department of Energy plans to move six tons of plutonium from Savannah River Site to New Mexico came as a welcome surprise to the Palmetto State.
After all, South Carolina is where the federal government usually sends nuclear waste. And typically it comes with promises to eventually send it elsewhere that don’t pan out.
Gov. Nikki Haley expressed her support of the DOE decision on Tuesday. But the governor isn’t relenting on the demand that the feds pay a $1 million a day fine based on their failure to meet the conditions of another nuclear waste-related promise.
The governor described the decision as a “big win for South Carolina,” but added that “we will continue to watch this process carefully, as the Department of Energy has not lived up to promises made in the past.”
Consequently, state Attorney General Alan Wilson is staying the course on a lawsuit that also seeks to force the Department of Energy to live up to its plans for a facility to transform weapons grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel.
Those efforts recognize that even if the DOE relocation plan comes to fruition five years hence, there will still be seven tons of plutonium and an extensive inventory of other radioactive waste at Savannah River Site with no sure exit strategy.
Congress approved the nuclear fuel plant, known as the MOX facility, in 1998. However, the Obama administration wants to terminate the project, already in an advanced stage of construction, in favor of another disposal project.
Similarly, the expected long-term storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was unilaterally closed in 2010 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, with the support of the White House.
Members of the South Carolina congressional delegation have been successful in maintaining some federal funding for the MOX plant, and they are at it again.
The state of South Carolina agreed to accept tons of highly radioactive material from other defense sites on the promise that there would be an exit plan for it.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’ unexpected decision to ship out six tons of neutralized plutonium at SRS doesn’t settle the issue.
For example, the state has learned that 750,000 pounds of highly radioactive waste are heading to Savannah River Site from Japan.
And as reporter Derrek Asberry noted, South Carolina can expect to receive continuing shipments of plutonium and other radioactive material from other countries over the next six years.
State officials have plenty of reasons to remain cautious — and assertive in demanding that the federal government quit using South Carolina as a nuclear waste dump.