- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Several Republicans have asked South Carolina’s governor to explore possible legal action to avoid the closure of a multi-billion dollar project to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel.

In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson implored Gov. Nikki Haley to work with state prosecutors to “explore any legal avenues” to keep the mixed-oxide fuel project going at the Savannah River Site. Failure to keep the effort alive, the representatives argue, would violate an international nonproliferation agreement with Russia.

The project known as MOX is managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department. It would be the first of its kind in the United States to create fuel from weapons-grade plutonium.

The project is intended as the processing point to help the United States fulfill an agreement, along with Russia, to dispose of at least 34 metric tons apiece of weapons-grade plutonium - an amount, according to NNSA, that is enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has routinely given good marks to progress on the project, and site workers have logged more than 15 million consecutive work hours without a lost workday due to injury.

But MOX has been slow to attract customers for the commercial reactor fuel it will produce. Shaw Areva MOX Services - the company contracted to build the plant - has mentioned negotiations with utility companies interesting in buying the fuel. But none of those utilities have officially signed on.

Construction on MOX began in 2007, and the project has undergone years of delays and cost overruns, escalations that officials have attributed in part to contractors being hired before designs were complete. As a result, the NNSA has said, some costs have averaged 60 percent higher than estimated.

The General Accountability Office has said the project is more than three years behind its 2016 completion deadline - and at least $3 billion over budget, at $7.7 billion. In a report last month, the watchdog agency said the U.S. Department of Energy needed to get a better handle on why the plant’s costs have ballooned by billions of dollars.

The Obama administration began the process of slowing down the project’s funding last year, saying MOX “may be unaffordable.” In his proposed 2015 budget sent to Congress last week, President Barack Obama essentially said he wants to mothball the program, putting MOX on “cold standby” while officials evaluate alternative ways to dispose of plutonium.

In their letter, Graham, Scott and Wilson say doing such a thing would leave the U.S. unable to hold up its end of the deal with Russia.

“This course of action will likely lead the federal government to violate the terms of the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Disposition Management Agreement,” the Republicans wrote in a letter, dated Friday.

In an email, Mark Powell, spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson - son of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson - said, “The AG’s Office is examining all possible avenues for legal action to address this, should legal action be necessary.”


Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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