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South Carolina Sues Feds Over Nuke Plan

(CN) - A change in how the U.S. Department of Energy plans to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium has prompted a lawsuit by the South Carolina attorney general, who says shutting down the program will cause the state irreparable harm.

The federal government has been building a mixed-oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility at Savannah River Site in South Carolina as part of a long-standing agreement with Russia for each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.

But the project, which is only about 70 percent complete, has already cost $3.3 billion more than the $1.7 billion total cost project when work on the facility began in 2007. On Tuesday, President Obama proposed a 2017 budget that called for terminating the project and called for a "change in plutonium disposition" that would appropriate $285 million for the Energy Department to complete a "preconceptual design" for downblending the radioactive material.

The change means that instead of turning the material into the nuclear fuel, the Savannah River Site would be tasked only with diluting the plutonium and then shipping it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

In a lawsuit filed in Aiken Federal Court on Tuesday, S.C. Attorney General says the federal government must be required to "obey the law" and finish the MOX facility.

"The federal government has a responsibility to follow through with its promises," Wilson said in a statement after the complaint was filed. "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.

"This behavior will not be tolerated. We are committed to uses every legal avenue possible to ensure compliance," he said.

The Obama administration says the MOX project has already been significantly more expensive than anticipated, and that the Department of Energy believe the facility will require an annual investment of $800 million to $1 billion for decades.

The Energy Department has said just shutting down the project will cost up to $700 million.

But the number Wilson and South Carolina lawmakers are focusing on is the 1,250 jobs that could be cut if the MOX project is discontinued.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said ending the project without another plan already in place is "reckless, ill-conceived and dangerous," while Rep. Joe Wilson, whose district contains the Savannah River Site, called the decision to terminate the project "counterproductive and shortsighted."

But not everyone was unhappy to learn of the project's proposed end.

Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch, told The State newspaper the Energy Department should be "congratulated for admitting the reality that the MOX project is not financially or technically viable and must be terminated."

"Termination is the only option for MOX as there is not viable path forward for the project from a financial or technical perspective," he said.

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