COLUMBIA — A lawyer from the S.C. Attorney General's office said discussions from Department of Energy officials concerning the Savannah River Site's MOX facility are ambiguous, or seem to have double meanings.
During the Governor's Nuclear Advisory Council meeting in Columbia on Thursday, Randy Lowell – a lawyer affiliated with the S.C. Attorney General's office – said congressional, DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration officials have discussed issues regarding the lawsuit South Carolina filed against the DOE and NNSA.
The lawsuit came after news that the federal government was planning to place the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in a cold stand-by while NNSA officials explored cheaper options.
Lowell said information was limited due to the fact that the issue is still open; however, he said statements from DOE and NNSA are sending mixed signals about when NNSA would issue a stop work order to begin the cold stand-by.
“One official said the stop work order would come sooner than later, and another said they may pause it due to the support of MOX from Congress,” Lowell told members of the Council and the public.
Gov. Nikki Haley announced that South Carolina was suing DOE during a news conference on Tuesday, April 18 – exactly two weeks after President Barack Obama's proposed federal budget was released.
Lowell said DOE has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, which would put the deadline in mid-May.
He said the state is predicting a response in one of two ways: Either with a decision to go ahead with an order to stop work, or with a written response to the lawsuit.
“If they do issue a stop work order, we'd go to the judge and say ‘Listen. We've received this stop work order, and DOE needs to pause the order while this issue is pending.'”
Lowell added that DOE officials already have acknowledged some of the holes in the cold stand-by attempt.
DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz, for example, has admitted that the MOX alternatives that the DOE already has looked at would be either nearly as expensive as MOX, or would not meet the necessary requirements.
Another premise the state is using in the lawsuit is the fact that federal funds already were granted for MOX construction and not for a cold stand-by.
In the compliant, officials wrote, “The use of appropriated funds in this manner is unauthorized and violates the Constitution and federal law.”
Attorney General Alan Wilson added, “Our complaint asserts that the administration's misuse of federal funds violates the fundamental tenet of separation of powers, and it explicitly violates a federal statute prohibiting executive agencies from expending funds for purposes unauthorized by Congress.”
The MOX project is part of a nonproliferation agreement with Russia to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.
The project has undergone cost overruns, although the amount of the cost overruns is in question. A DOE study that has yet to be released to the public priced the entire program at $30 billion.
Officials from AREVA – a partner of the MOX contractor – said that estimate is incorrect and that the life cycle cost of the MOX project is closer to $17 billion.
Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard. He joined the paper in June. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and a graduate of Georgia Southern University. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.