S.C. attorney general sues over MOX delays

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson

WASHINGTON — S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has filed a lawsuit to force the U.S. Department of Energy to finish the mixed oxide fuel fabrication, or MOX, project at the Savannah River Site, the same day President Barack Obama submitted his final federal budget proposal to Congress calling for the program’s termination.

Wilson threatened to sue at the end of 2015 at the urging of Gov. Nikki Haley.

“The federal government has a responsibility to follow through with its promises,” Wilson said in a statement Tuesday. “The Department of Energy has continually shown disregard for its obligations under federal law to the nation, the State of South Carolina and frankly the rule of law. The federal government is not free to flout the law. This behavior will not be tolerated. We are committed to using every legal avenue possible to ensure compliance.”

MOX originally was intended to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel, the result of a 2000 agreement between the United States and Russia to destroy materials no longer necessary in a post-Cold War era.

The project is now years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, and Obama’s Department of Energy has attempted for several budget cycles to stop the initiative and move it someplace else for less money.

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz confirmed the department would pursue a “dilute and dispose” option to deal with the remaining excess plutonium. He said this method would finish the job by 2022 or 2023, whereas the reprocessing method being pursued at MOX would not be complete until “2035, maybe 2040.”

Moniz also conceded that abandoning MOX would result in some financial waste.

“There will be some capability to recapture some of the value of the project, but frankly, much of it will have to be written off, to be perfectly honest,” Moniz said. He added, however, that even under this scenario the total cost of the project would be billions of dollars less than if MOX were allowed to stay the course.

Despite what Obama administration officials and allies consider a compelling argument in favor of the dilution method, Congress has repeatedly thumbed its nose at proposals to nix MOX. Congressional lawmakers have repeatedly come to South Carolina’s rescue to shore up the necessary funding to keep the program operational. This year is expected to be no different, with Obama’s entire $4 trillion budget request pronounced “dead on arrival” by Capitol Hill Republicans.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., whose district includes Aiken and whose son is South Carolina’s Republican attorney general, has already started paving the way for congressional support in 2016 to keep MOX on track. Earlier this month, he testified before the House Budget Committee about the importance of including relevant language in Congress’ own budget blueprint. In January, Wilson also led a Congressional delegation to the MOX site, which included fellow South Carolina Republican U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney along with U.S. Reps. Rick Allen, R-Ga., and Donald Norcross, D-N.J.

“The MOX facility is crucial to our environmental cleanup missions, which produce green fuel, and national security. This decision to eliminate funding to the MOX facility is counterproductive and shortsighted,” Joe Wilson said in a statement. “The facts are clear — we must protect MOX from misplaced attacks that will have serious repercussions for American families.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., suggested to reporters on Capitol Hill it is irrelevant whether the proposed “dilute and dispose” method was more practical because it still went against the agreement with the Russians.

Fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in his own statement said MOX’s national security component made it more critical now than ever that the program should be allowed to complete its work.

“As we have seen firsthand from their dealings with the Iranians, negotiating with a tough adversary is not a strong suit of the Obama administration,” he said. “Now is not the time to change course and have the Obama administration try to renegotiate anything with the Russians. It will not end well for U.S. interests. One can only imagine what the Russians will ask for in return.”

At his Tuesday press conference, Moniz said conversations with the Russians are underway. “They’ve been good discussions,” he said.

Moniz did not comment on the lawsuit.

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.