SRS Sign, Plutonium Removal, Appeals

The entrance to the Savannah River Site, a 310 square-mile complex.

A federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court's injunction requiring the U.S. Department of Energy to remove weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina.

Judge Robert B. King of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 45-page written opinion, described the injunction as "carefully" and "appropriately" crafted and considerate of all parties, positions and record. The opinion – joined by two other judges – and related order were filed Friday.

The injunction, issued in December 2017 by District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs, orders the DOE to remove at least 1 metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from the state within two years or at the latest Jan. 1, 2020.

The DOE appealed the matter shortly after the injunction was issued.

During appeals, the DOE argued the mandated two-year time period was an abuse of the district court's discretion, according to court documents. In sum, the DOE insisted the two-year goal was impossible to meet, which rendered it unfair.

The DOE also argued the district court "erred as a matter of law" during its injunction decision, according to the same court documents.

The appellate judges rejected both claims – the abuse and the error – on Friday. 

"It thus did not abuse its discretion or improperly burden DOE by imposing ... two-year removal timeframe," King wrote, referencing the lower court.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson brought the initial lawsuit against the DOE.

On Friday, Wilson described the court's affirmation as "a victory for the rule of law."

"It doesn't get much clearer than this," Wilson said in a prepared statement. "Congress passed a law requiring that the plutonium be removed and the Department of Energy has not followed that law."

When the plutonium removal injunction was issued last year, Wilson made similar comments.

"This ruling is a vindication of the principle of the rule of law and the state's position that it will not be a dumping ground for the plutonium," he said at the time.

Colin Demarest is the government and Savannah River Site reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin