- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A federal judge has ruled that a regional economic development group can’t be part of South Carolina’s lawsuit against the U.S. Energy Department over an incomplete nuclear fuel project.

U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs on Wednesday rejected the request by the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance, saying the nonprofit group doesn’t have legal standing to intervene in the dispute between the state and federal governments.

Childs also wrote that the group’s participation in the case “would complicate the litigation, potentially unduly delay the adjudication of the case on the merits, and generate little, if any, corresponding benefit to the existing parties.”

The state is suing because a mixed-oxide plant to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel isn’t operating. By law the federal government was supposed to remove 1 metric ton of plutonium from the state by last Jan. 1 or begin paying daily fines of $1 million - and hasn’t done either.

The project at the Savannah River Site along the South Carolina-Georgia border is billions of dollars over budget. It was intended to help the United States fulfill an agreement with Russia to dispose of at least 34 metric tons apiece of weapons-grade plutonium, an amount government officials say is enough for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.

The Alliance had argued that it is affected financially by the site’s mixed-oxide project, which was designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. In its filings, the group says its constituents would benefit from the plant’s productivity, as well as the fine money.

Attorneys for both the state and the federal government had opposed allowing the group, which represents impoverished areas near the Savannah River Site, to enter the case. Should the state successfully win any money through its own lawsuit, the government argued in its filings, the Alliance should in turn sue the state to try to recover any of that money.

In its official response to the lawsuit itself, the Energy Department has said the complaint should be dismissed because the state is wrongly interpreting laws governing the project. Attorneys for the government also argued that any potential fines for project delays should be handled in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, not the U.S. District Court.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for next month.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/

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