South Carolina and the Department of Energy said last week they had failed to settle a $200 million lawsuit over the federal government’s failure to begin removing weapon-usable plutonium from the state by Jan. 1, 2016.
The U.S. Court of Federal Claims case had been on hold for about a year, during which DoE made only a single “lowball” settlement offer that South Carolina “rejected out of hand,” according to a status report filed Friday by the state’s legal team.
In the status report, South Carolina asked Judge Margaret Sweeney to grant a motion for summary judgment and award the state the $200 million in fines it says DoE owes for failing to begin removing around 10 metric tons of surplus weapon-usuable plutonium from the Savannah River Site.
In a separate status report filed Friday, the Energy Department said it does not object to resuming the case. The federal filing did not address claims in South Carolina’s status report that the agency’s allegedly lowball offer was a cynical gesture made only so DoE could claim it tried to settle the case.
Sweeney had not scheduled further action in the case at deadline for Defense Daily.
The Savannah River Site is the hub of a major plutonium disposal program under a 2000 U.S.-Russian arms-control agreement, under which each nation vowed to eliminate 34 metric tons of military-grade plutonium declared surplus to defense needs after the Cold War ended.
The Energy Department originally planned to convert its stockpile into commercial nuclear reactor fuel using Savannah River’s now-canceled Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF). In 2016, the agency asked Congress to terminate the project and instead approve an alternative approach called dilute-and-dispose that could begin converting plutonium into a form suitable for off-site disposal by 2028.
Congress is close to approving dilute-and-dispose, although the agency would still be on the hook for annual state fines until the MFFF alternative actually gets the surplus plutonium out of South Carolina.
DoE argues it cannot pay the fines South Carolina seeks unless Congress appropriates funding for that purpose. The state rejects that argument and says DoE can legally tap into numerous agency budgets to pay the fine, including the Material Disposition subprogram within the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation branch of the agency’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.
Meanwhile, DoE urgently wants to turn MFFF into a factory that can annually produce 50 fissile nuclear weapon cores called plutonium pits. The agency requested a little more than $400 million for the conversion effort in the 2020 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The new pits DoE wants to make at Savannah River would be for W87-1-style warheads, which would top the future Ground Based Strategic Deterrent intercontinental ballistic missiles. The next-generation missiles would replace the existing Minuteman III fleet beginning in 2030.
DoE plans to begin pit production for W87-1 warheads in 2026 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.