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South Carolina sues U.S. Energy Department to save reactor fuel plant

radiation leaks
radiation leaks

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina sued the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday over the federal government's plans to scrap a plutonium recycling plant that has been under construction for years in the state, arguing it violates a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Russia.

The plant, called MOX for Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, was intended to turn leftover weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel.

But in a budget request to Congress last week for the fiscal year 2015, the National Nuclear Security Administration proposed suspending the plant, citing cost overruns for the $30 billion project, which is about 60 percent complete.

"The MOX fuel approach is not viable within available resources," the agency said.

The lawsuit filed in federal court asks a judge to force the federal government to continue funding it.

A Department of Energy spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.

Scrapping the project would violate a United States nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Russia that includes plans to get rid of weapons-grade plutonium, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson told reporters.

South Carolina also wants to protect the jobs of 1,800 workers at the plant, Wilson said.

Republican Governor Nikki Haley said the federal government was reneging on a promise to the state to get rid of nuclear materials through the project.

Savannah River Site, which is located in the city of Aiken near the Georgia border, produced about 36 tonnes of plutonium from 1953 to 1988, according to its website.

"In South Carolina when I was raised by my parents, your word meant something," Haley said.

"In Washington, D.C., that's no longer the case. Now we have a facility that D.C. started, and plutonium sitting there, and now you're going to stop MOX? We're not going to stand back and take it. They have messed with the wrong state."

Tom Clements, an adviser to the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, which has long opposed the project, said South Carolina has no regulatory or fiscal say over the federal Savannah River Site.

"The governor is engaged in some political theater that will cost the taxpayer money and will not accomplish what she is setting out to do," said Clements, who said he has followed the MOX project since its inception in the 1990s.

"The problem with the MOX program is that there's $25 billion left to spend and the government doesn't have that money," he said.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Lisa Shumaker)

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