The Department of Energy has reached a settlement with the state of South Carolina to remove 9.5 metric tons (t) of plutonium from the state, the agency announced on August 31. Under the settlement, which resolves litigation over the storage of surplus plutonium at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., the state will receive an upfront lump sum of $600 million in economic and impact assistance payments. In return, the DOE will be allowed more time (through 2037) to remove the plutonium from the state without the threat of lawsuits.
The settlement stems from the DOE's termination of the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in 2018. The MOX facility was intended to meet a nonproliferation agreement between the United States and Russia to dispose of 34 t of weapons-grade plutonium by converting it to nuclear fuel for commercial power reactors. Reported to be 70-percent completed when construction was halted, the MOX facility was approximately $13 billion over budget and 32 years behind schedule, according to the DOE.
Lawsuit: Following the cancellation of the MOX project, the state of South Carolina sued the DOE in an effort to prevent the facility from being shut down and, consequently, making the state a “permanent repository for defense plutonium.” That lawsuit, filed in 2018, was dismissed early this year after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 declined to hear the case.
The details: As part of 2002 legislation concerning the MOX facility, the DOE agreed that if its MOX fuel production goals were not met and the plutonium was not removed by a certain deadline, the department would reimburse South Carolina in the amount of $1 million per day for each day that certain milestones went unmet, up to a maximum of $100 million per year.
Currently, 9.5 t of plutonium brought into the state for the MOX facility remain in South Carolina. The next statutory deadline for removal is January 1, 2022. The DOE said that its current use of the “dilute and dispose” method of removing the plutonium, while proven to be safe and effective, guarantees that it will miss that deadline.
The current timeline projects that the 9.5 t of plutonium will be completely removed by 2049, which means that without the settlement agreement, the federal government would be subject to economic and impact assistance payments of more than $2 billion, according to the DOE.
WIPP disposal: Separately, the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration announced in the August 28 Federal Register its decision to dispose of an additional 7.1 t of non-pit plutonium using the dilute and dispose method. The plutonium would be disposed of as contact-handled transuranic (TRU) waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
In an April 2015 environmental impact statement (Surplus Plutonium Disposition Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement DOE/EIS–0283–S2), the NNSA evaluated alternative methods of disposing of 13.1 t of surplus plutonium, comprised of 6 t of non-pit plutonium and 7.1 t of pit plutonium. In December 2015, the NNSA announced that its preferred alternative for the non-pit plutonium was preparation at the Savannah River Site and disposal at WIPP using the dilute and dispose method. At the time, the NNSA did not state a preferred alternative for disposing of the remaining pit plutonium or the options for pit disassembly and conversion.
According to the NNSA's announcement, the decision to dispose of the non-pit plutonium as TRU waste at WIPP will allow the DOE and the NNSA “to prepare more plutonium in a shorter time for disposition, thereby accelerating removal of plutonium from the state of South Carolina.”