A federal judge on June 7 granted a preliminary injunction preventing the Dept. of Energy from enacting a stop work order that would have cancelled construction of the over-budget, behind-schedule MOX project at Savannah River Site. The decision prevented the issuance of as many as 900 job cancellation notices by contractor CB&I AREVA MOX Services. The contractor had planned to issue notices to affected workers “as soon as possible the week of June 11.”
The state of South Carolina had sought the injunction in response to Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s May 10 action effectively ending DOE’s use of funds for project construction. The authority to essentially halt MOX’s construction had been newly given to DOE by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The MOX project was originally designed to convert 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel as the United States’ preferred method of plutonium disposition, mandated by an agreement with Russia.
Perry’s May 10 letter also attested that DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration—a semi-autonomous division of DOE—were moving to another method of plutonium disposition known as “dilute and dispose,” which involves blending plutonium with other materials.
South Carolina had argued in its motion that because dilute and dispose was not yet a viable alternative, the proposed switch risked leaving 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium sitting at Savannah River Site with no viable path out of the state.
In her June 7 decision, U.S. District Court Judge Michelle Childs ruled that DOE’s action had not taken the steps to make dilute and dispose a viable alternative to MOX, noting that the federal government had neglected to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.
The judge reasoned then that canceling the MOX project would have the effect of “reversing and rendering pointless over 20 years of studies, decisions, efforts and substantial monetary investments to develop the MOX Facility to complete the United States’ disposition mission.”
Childs added that if DOE’s stop-work order was enacted, the resulting termination of the contract with CB&I AREVA MOX Services and dismissal of the project’s labor force would leave “no feasible way to revive the MOX Project.”
In a June 8 statement, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a primary backer of MOX, remarked: “DOE’s decision to terminate MOX will be a case study in arbitrary and capricious decision making by the federal government.”
He added, “Yesterday’s decision will allow the congressional delegation, working with President Trump, to stop this madness and ensure South Carolina is not left holding the bag.”
In 2016, DOE estimated that at the current pace of funding, construction would be completed in 2048, at a total cost of nearly $17.2 billion.
While noting the importance of maintaining a pathway for removing plutonium from the state, MOX critic Tom Clements, with Savannah River Site Watch, remarked that the current project’s ability to meet that objective is debatable.
“The judge simply does not understand the breadth of funding and technical problems with the mismanaged MOX project and that it will never result in plutonium removal from the state,” Clements said in a statement.
When Perry announced DOE’s attempt to halt MOX construction, he also noted that the agency was planning to convert the unfinished MOX structure into a manufacturing plant for plutonium pits, a component of nuclear weapons.
Calling the proposed conversion to plutonium pit production a “mirage,” David Blee, executive director of the U.S. Nuclear Industry Council, saw that idea as an “attempt to entice South Carolina” to go along with the move to halt MOX. “You could say it backfired,” he added.
Moving forward, Blee believes it’s possible to rally Congressional support for increased funding for the project. “There’s a lot of momentum coming out of this decision,” he said.