Government wants regional group out of nuke fuel lawsuit

AP News
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Posted: May 04, 2016 12:04 PM

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — An economic development group shouldn't be allowed into South Carolina's lawsuit against the U.S. Energy Department, attorneys for the federal government argued in court papers filed this week.

According to lawyers representing the Energy Department, the nonprofit Southern Carolina Alliance doesn't have legal standing to intervene in the case, which should remain solely a dispute between the state and the federal government.

The nonprofit Alliance, which represents impoverished areas near the Savannah River Site, argues that it is affected financially by the site's mixed-oxide project, which was designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. In its filings, the group says its constituents would benefit from the plant's productivity, as well as the fine money.

Should the state successfully win any money through its own lawsuit, the government argued in its filings, the Alliance should in turn sue the state to try to recover any of that money.

"It appears that the objective of the putative intervenor is to have this Court award it an apportioned share of any economic and assistance payments that may be ordered," the government wrote. "But Southern Carolina Alliance has no 'claim or defense' at all, much less one that shares a common question of law or fact with South Carolina's claims."

The state has sued because the mixed-oxide plant isn't operating and by law the federal government was supposed to remove 1 metric ton of plutonium from the state by last Jan. 1 or begin paying fines of $1 million a day.

The project at the Savannah River Site along the South Carolina-Georgia border is billions of dollars over budget. It was intended to help the United States fulfill an agreement with Russia to dispose of at least 34 metric tons apiece of weapons-grade plutonium, an amount government officials say is enough for about 17,000 nuclear warheads.

Since the plant isn't operating, by law the federal government was supposed to remove 1 metric ton of plutonium from South Carolina by this year or pay $1 million a day for "economic and impact assistance," up to $100 million yearly, until either the facility meets its goals or the plutonium is taken out of state for storage or disposal elsewhere.

In its official response to the lawsuit itself, the Energy Department has said the complaint should be dismissed because the state is wrongly interpreting laws governing the project. Attorneys for the government also argued that any potential fines for project delays should be handled in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, not the U.S. District Court.

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