- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Finishing a South Carolina plutonium reprocessing project is critical to keeping up the U.S. end of a critical nonproliferation deal with Russia, one of the federal lawmakers instrumental in the agreement said Thursday after touring the facility that’s still under construction.

“This facility here in South Carolina is about 70 percent completed, and it’s absolutely vital to the safety of the United States of America, as well as the rest of the world, that we complete it,” former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, told The Associated Press.

Not finishing it, Lugar warned, “gives the Russians an opportunity really to back out of the project.”

Lugar spoke with AP after touring the mixed-oxide facility at the Savannah River Site. The program known as MOX is intended to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel to fulfill a deal with Russia on which Lugar’s work was instrumental.

Under the agreement, Russia and the U.S. agreed to dispose of at least 34 metric tons apiece of weapons-grade plutonium, enough material for about 17,000 nuclear warheads. MOX would turn it into commercial nuclear reactor fuel.

But the project is years behind schedule and billions over its original budget. Last week, Gov. Nikki Haley told South Carolina’s attorney general that she wants to sue the U.S. Department of Energy for the agency’s failure to meet completion deadlines.

Because MOX isn’t operating, by law the federal government was supposed to remove 1 metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina by Jan. 1 or pay $1 million a day for “economic and impact assistance” - up to $100 million yearly - until either the facility meets production goals or the plutonium is taken elsewhere for storage or disposal.

Haley warned Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in December that the state would be forced to sue if his agency didn’t start making payments. A clause in the law, however, makes the fine “subject to the availability of appropriations.”

South Carolina did sue the Obama administration in 2014 after officials said they wanted to shutter MOX, citing cost overruns and delays. In that lawsuit, the state said the federal government had made a commitment to South Carolina and legally couldn’t use money intended to build the plant to shut it down.

The state ultimately dropped the suit when the administration committed to funding the project through that fiscal year. But the administration has since said it’s searching for an alternate, less expensive way to dispose of the plutonium, like immobilizing it in glass or processing it in different kinds of reactors.

Asked about those possibilities, Lugar said MOX is still the safest, most effective method.

“I’ve seen no evidence that any other procedure is going to get the job done, that is, offer absolute assurance that the plutonium has been safely dealt with,” Lugar said.

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

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