SRS Sign, Plutonium Litigation

The entrance to the Savannah River Site, a 310 square-mile nuclear complex. The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility is located at the site.

The state of South Carolina is no longer interested in settling a multimillion-dollar lawsuit it lodged against the federal government in 2018 for failing to remove plutonium from the Savannah River Site.

The Palmetto State's legal team on Friday requested a federal judge lift a stay – in place to engender talks – and summarily award the state the $200 million it is suing for.

"While a settlement would have been preferred to eliminate the risk inherent in litigation ... South Carolina is left with no choice but to move forward with litigation," reads a Friday court filing, which is signed by Randolph Lowell, the state's counsel.

The offensive push follows apparent struggles to hold the U.S. Department of Justice's attention and get DOJ officials to budge from a single "lowball" counteroffer, according to documents submitted by the state.

In a March 12 letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson described the "lack of" communication and engagement from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Justice Department as frustrating.

Wilson's office would not comment on the lawsuit Friday.

The demanded $200 million comprises two years of fines levied against the Energy Department for not removing weapons-grade plutonium from SRS.

Federal law mandated – beginning Jan. 1, 2016 – the DOE pay South Carolina $1 million for each day, up to 100 days per year, the department failed to process plutonium via the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility or more generally get 1 metric ton of it out of the state.

The Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration terminated the never-completed MOX project on Oct. 10, 2018. Billions of dollars had already been funneled into the controversial venture by that time.

In other cases, South Carolina has argued the death of MOX would be detrimental, would make the state a permanent nuclear repository and would strand the plutonium already here. Approximately 12 metric tons of surplus plutonium was at the site as of mid-May, according to an NNSA official. Only some of that cache was bound for MOX.

The federal government and South Carolina had been wrapped in the negotiations process for months. The latest court-ordered status update, though, foreshadowed problems.

"The parties continue to engage in discussions to determine whether it is feasible to resolve this matter without further court involvement," reads a May 28 filing.

In October 2018, Gov. Henry McMaster, Alan Wilson, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson and U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott met with President Donald Trump to discuss SRS and MOX, more specifically. The Justice Department was absent from that meeting, according to South Carolina's court filing.

Colin Demarest is the government and Savannah River Site reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin