South Carolina

Bomb-grade plutonium stockpile rankles SC leaders

Byron Vaigneur, 84, of Jackson, S.C., worked at the Savannah River site for 33 years. He started work in 1954 and retired in 1987. This photo is from the 1970s.
Byron Vaigneur, 84, of Jackson, S.C., worked at the Savannah River site for 33 years. He started work in 1954 and retired in 1987. This photo is from the 1970s. Courtesy of Byron Vaigneur

Gov. Nikki Haley said Tuesday that the federal government must either neutralize plutonium at the Savannah River Site or ship the deadly atomic material away from South Carolina as U.S. officials promised more than a decade ago.

Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson are considering legal action against the federal government over its failure to get rid of the surplus plutonium that has been stockpiled at the site from around the country. A deadline to take action is looming next year.

“They made an agreement with the state of South Carolina,’’ Haley said. “It is my job to enforce that they stay true to the agreement with the state of South Carolina. So we are going to just actively remind them that they are coming up on the deadline.’’

Under a 2003 federal law, the U.S. Department of Energy is supposed to have begun processing the plutonium at a new mixed oxide fuel factory on SRS by now. But the plant is only 70 percent completed and billions of dollars over budget. Haley has supported construction of the plant at SRS in the past.

Because the plant won’t be finished anytime soon, the federal government is liable to pay up $1 million per day in fines. The DOE has signaled that it wants to abandon the MOX project because of its expense — already at $5 billion and rising. A federal site in New Mexico is an option for plutonium disposal from SRS.

Tom Clements, a longtime anti-nuclear activist and MOX plant opponent, said the 2003 law that Haley is seeking to enforce is full of loopholes that allow the federal government freedom to avoid penalties.

“There are so many hurdles in the law that it is impractical to carry it out,’’ he said, noting that Congress would have to appropriate money to pay fines to South Carolina.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Haley said she’s not interested in collecting fines, but making sure the weapons grade plutonium isn’t left in South Carolina as waste. She expressed her concerns in a letter Monday to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz that said the state “cannot stand idly by.’’

“It wasn’t about the money,’’ Haley said. “It was about actually dealing with the plutonium that was sitting there. The fact that they are not doing that is a concern. We will have to figure out what to do next. I don’t want South Carolina just sitting with this waste.’’

Asked if Haley still wants to complete the MOX plant, spokeswoman Chaney Adams said, “The governor supports following through on the agreement between South Carolina and DOE. We are not seeing any movement toward processing or moving the weapons grade plutonium.’’

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, said Tuesday the MOX project needs to be completed. Project boosters, which also include U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca., have championed the project as a way to meet an international nuclear non proliferation agreement, provide fuel for atomic power plants, and provide jobs for South Carolina.

Clyburn said he’s working to “get the administration not to move against the program.’’

Plutonium is a highly toxic nuclear material used in production of atomic bombs, but the nation no longer needs all of the plutonium it produced. Much of the material has been sent to SRS from other federal weapons facilities in the past 15 years for processing into MOX, despite complaints that it could be left in the state forever. The U.S. has said it would meet the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Russia by neutralizing plutonium in a new MOX plant.

Staff writer Cassie Cope contributed to this story.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer