A federal appeals court on Tuesday permanently lifted a legal ban against closing the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) in South Carolina, cutting down the state’s argument that such a move amounted to creating an illegal, permanent plutonium repository.
The decision was a legal formality, as the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) had already canceled MOX Services’ contract for the facility in October, when the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily lifted the injunction that yesterday was permanently removed.
South Carolina had alleged that the NNSA’s decision to cancel the MFFF, designed to turn 34 metric tons of weapons-usable plutonium into commercial reactor fuel at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., would permanently strand plutonium in the state. To permanently store plutonium in South Carolina, the state argued, the federal agency was legally required to undertake a potentially years-long environmental review — something it has not done.
But the appeals judges said the NNSA already had an environmental review that covered plutonium storage at Savannah River through 2046, and that the agency has identified an alternative plutonium disposal method to replace the MFFF: chemically weakening it with proposed on-site facilities, blending it with concrete-like material called stardust, and burying it deep underground at DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.
Should that so-called dilute-and-dispose plan fail, the NNSA has about 30 years to come up with a backup to that backup, the appeals court wrote.
South Carolina sued in May 2018 in U.S. District Court and got the now-vacated injunction in June. The state said the NNSA’s plan to close the plant ran afoul of federal environmental law. That suit now will continue; the parties had not filed any new documents in the original case at deadline Tuesday for Weapons Complex Morning Briefing.
The MFFF is slated to lay off substantially all of its workforce by early March, when there will be fewer than 500 people left on a project that employed about 1,500. About 600 people lost their jobs Monday in the first of three layoff waves.