The U.S. Supreme Court later this month will consider hearing a case tied directly to the death of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site and the related long-term storage of plutonium in South Carolina.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, backed by a Columbia and Charleston law firm, on June 7 petitioned the high court to examine an appellate-level determination that the state lacked grounds to challenge the federal government's decision to mothball the never-completed MOX project.
The matter is set for review at the justices' Oct. 11 private conference, according to Supreme Court records. A report should be available the following week.
The Supreme Court receives upward of 8,000 petitions each term, October through June or July. About 80 of those petitions are granted and heard by the court.
MOX was designed to turn 34 metric tons of deemed-surplus plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. The project was over budget, past due and had been scrutinized by both the Obama and Trump administrations by the time the National Nuclear Security Administration – a weapons-and-nonproliferation agency – canceled it late last year.
Billions of dollars and more than a decade of work had been invested by that point.
South Carolina's legal team and various officials have repeatedly said ending the nuclear fuel project would be detrimental and would render the state a nuclear dumping ground. The U.S. Department of Energy disagrees.
Metric tons of surplus plutonium – material that can be used for nuclear weapons – are currently stored at the Savannah River Site, which is south of Aiken. Not all of the plutonium at SRS now was destined for MOX.
In its initial petition, South Carolina's legal team listed several "compelling reasons" as to why the matter warranted Supreme Court review: conflict with established legal cases; conflict between circuit courts; "constitutional issues" regarding states' interests; and an opportunity to clarify another court ruling.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, formally joined the fray in July, pressing the high court to take the case. Graham, who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, argued the federal government unjustly walked away from its Palmetto State plutonium promises.
"The federal government previously made legally binding commitments to the state of South Carolina in recognition of its sovereign status and its proprietary interests," the senator's brief reads. "It has now breached those commitments, causing injury to the state that a court may redress."
The state made a related argument in a separate Sept. 24 filing.
"Allowing the federal government to shirk its statutory responsibilities to the state in an instance where Congress's clear intent was to protect it sets a dangerous precedent for other states and their relations with the federal government," it reads.
Wilson, South Carolina's attorney general, alluded to a Supreme Court push in April.
"We're looking at all our options," he said, speaking in Aiken. "I don't know that it looks that great, but we have not given up."