U.S. Senator (South Carolina), Lindsey Graham, is urging the nation’s highest court to take up South Carolina’s fight to resuscitate the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility that has been shuttered at the Savannah River Site (SRS) – in the brief he filed on July 11 with the U.S. Supreme Court. He argues that the federal government has walked away from its obligation to address the plutonium stored in the Palmetto State.
S.C. Attorney General, Alan Wilson, has also petitioned the high court to examine the legal circumstances that led to the termination of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, as well. In fact, the South Carolina legal team has specifically asked the Supreme Court to evaluate a federal appellate court’s determination that the state lacked grounds to challenge the Energy Department’s decision to terminate the MOX Facility and formally pursue another method for plutonium disposal.
That ruling, in 2018, from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively nullified the facility as only one day after the ruling, the Energy Department’s nuclear security and nonproliferation arm — the National Nuclear Security Administration — killed the MOX project in full, effective immediately.
The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, more than a decade in the making and never completed, was designed to turn 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into commercial-grade nuclear fuel. This project was started based on the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, signed in 2000, between the United States and Russia in April 2010 and went into effect in July 2011. The agreement regulated the conversion of non-essential plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel to be used to produce electricity. In 2007, the U.S. began constructing a Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site. However, U.S. president Barack Obama canceled construction of the MFFF in 2016 and proposed plutonium dilution (down-blended) with non-radioactive material with disposal at the underground Weapons Isolation Production Plant (WIPP) facility in New Mexico, due to financial considerations. This down-blending process was selected because it could be reversed, and the material reconverted into weapons-grade plutonium, if necessary. By 2015, Russia was on track and had begun producing their MOX fuel at its own MOX facility, for use in its fast reactor, the BN-800. On October 3, 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the agreement suspended because the U.S. did not meet their obligations.
In 2018, the Energy Department ended the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the SRS after numerous cost and time overruns. Nearly $8 billion had been spent on the project by that point and is was ~70% completed. Several U.S. utilities (Duke-Energy, Southern Company, TVA, & others) had agreed to use the MOX fuel once it was fabricated.