To settle years of expensive litigation, the federal government will pay $600 million from the Treasury’s judgment fund by roughly the end of September in recognition of the Department of Energy’s inability to remove several metric tons of plutonium from South Carolina by a legal deadline of 2022, state and federal officials said Monday.
As part of the settlement, which isn’t coming out of DoE’s budget, the agency has agreed to move some 9.5 million tons of weapon-usable plutonium, now stored at the Savannah River Site, out of South Carolina by 2037 — or else pay the state even more money.
To meet the deadline, DoE is looking at trucking some of the plutonium out of state, diverting some of it to fuel the versatile test reactor program run by the agency’s Nuclear Energy office, and disposing of some of it at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as part of the agency’s dilute and dispose program, which is officially known as Surplus Plutonium Disposition.
“There are several disposal paths forward,” Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette told reporters after a press conference with Alan Wilson, the state attorney general who led the lawsuit. “Dilute and dispose is but one. There are certain types of plutonium that are at the SRS site that we can store today in other locations that DoE owns around the country. So that’s one option for us. We’re going to lay those out over the course of the next few weeks and months.”
To comply with a 2017 court order in a separate lawsuit, DoE redirected some of the surplus plutonium back into the nuclear weapons program, which will use the material to make fissile cores, or pits, for future intercontinental ballistic missile warheads. After re-designating the plutonium for defense use, DoE shipped it out of state to Nevada and, presumably, Texas.
The local Aiken Standard published audio of the post-presser question and answer session with officials.
In exchange for the up-front payment, and DoE’s promise to move the plutonium out of state faster, South Carolina has agreed not to sue DoE about this particular tranche of plutonium until 2037 deadline, giving the agency 15 years to begin the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Program without fear of yet another Palmetto-state lawsuit about this particular tranche of fissile material.
If DoE cannot move any more of the 9.5-ton tranche out of South Carolina by 2037, it would be on the hook for $1.5 billion in additional payments, under the settlement. That’s according to Alan Wilson, the state attorney general, who led both the lawsuit and Monday’s press conference. Moving any plutonium out would reduce the fine that comes due in 2037, Wilson said. If DoE can move half the 9.5 tons out of state by 2037, it will get another five years to move the rest out, said Wilson.
On Monday, Brouillette said DoE plans to get the entire 9.5 ton tranche out of South Carolina well before 2037.
The 9.5 tons of plutonium DoE plans to speed from Savannah River is part of a 34 metric-ton tranche that was once to be turned into commercial reactor fuel by the site’s now-canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF). Moreover, 2037 is years sooner than the agency expects to get rid of all that material using dilute and dispose, which is not scheduled to be running at full capacity until 2028 or so, assuming NNSA’s current funding estimate for the planned facility at the site’s K-Area is adequate, and that Congress delivers the funding.
Meanwhile, the $600 million settlement payment will come from the Treasury’s judgment fund, and not DoE’s budget, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters in a question-and-answer session with the participants of Monday’s press release.
Congress created the judgment fund in the 1950s so that Congress did not have to pass a law appropriating money to pay every successful court claim against the federal government. Last decade, the fund paid out some $3 billion or $4 billion annually, according to the Government Accountability Office.
In a controversial move in 2016, then-President Obama tapped into the judgment fund for a $1.3-billion interest payment on money the U.S. returned to the government of Iran.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), whose congressional district includes the Savannah River Site and surrounding communities, was part of Monday’s press conference.
State politicians also joined the Wilsons, Graham and Brouillette on stage, but one was notably absent: a still-fuming Gov. Henry McMaster (R-S.C.), who did not like the terms of the settlement.
“I am not confident that this long-term arrangement provides sufficient assurances that DoE will remove the plutonium from our state in a timely manner,” McMaster wrote in letter to Alan Wilson dated Aug. 30. The Aiken Standard posted the letter on Twitter.
The Energy Communities Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for the interests of localities that host DoE sites, boggled at the settlement in an email blast on Monday.
“We would not be surprised to see every state attorney general to be prepared for additional suits against [DoE and its National Nuclear Security Administration] based on the size of the settlement (including for breaking cleanup agreements),” The Energy Communities Alliance wrote.