South Carolina's governor on Thursday described news that the federal government had quietly moved a total 1 metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium out of his state as "a small piece of happiness in a situation that is intolerable," referencing the stockpile of nuclear material that remains at the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site.
Gov. Henry McMaster, who has scrutinized the Energy Department before, further described the now-complete relocation campaign was a "small step of progress being made" ahead of the "many more steps" needed.
The Energy Department's weapons and nonproliferation arm, the National Nuclear Security Administration, announced Thursday afternoon that 1 metric ton of defense plutonium had been removed from the state, finally satisfying a 2017 federal court order. The NNSA's announcement followed one made Wednesday evening by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who described the plutonium shipments as a "victory for South Carolinians and the rule of law."
"The Department of Energy disregarded many of its obligations to the state, and this outcome confirms the state will not sit idly by while the department does so," said Wilson, who had sued over the cache and is now leading an effort to secure millions of dollars in plutonium-related fines.
According to the 2017 court order, the federal government had until January 2020 to remove a metric ton of plutonium from the Savannah River Site, which is a half-hour south of Aiken and hours northwest of Charleston. The NNSA accomplished the mission nearly six months ahead of schedule, according to the agency's terse announcement.
A half-metric ton of plutonium was shipped from SRS to Nevada in 2018. It's not clear where the other half-metric ton has gone, though the Pantex Plant in northern Texas is a likely destination.
The total 1 metric ton will be used for weapons – plutonium pit production, according to a July 2018 NNSA environmental study. Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores, and are often referred to as triggers.
"The material removed from the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, will be used for national security missions and is not waste," the NNSA's announcement reads. Similar sentiments have been made by U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and former NNSA Chief of Staff William "Ike" White.
Metric tons of plutonium are still at the Savannah River Site. The material is stored in K-Area, a former reactor facility that was retrofitted to consolidate and hold much of the nation's plutonium.
McMaster on Thursday said he and other officials – namely those in Washington, D.C. – "are determined to do whatever it takes to see that South Carolina is not a waste dump for plutonium or anything else." It's a point he's made before.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, in February said he, too, had a goal: getting plutonium out of the Palmetto State.
"Now. I want it out now," Graham said at the time, speaking with reporters in Greenville.
"They've been in communication," McMaster said Thursday of his office and the Energy Department, "but they're not moving fast enough, of course."