Under the terms of the of the settlement, the US will pay South Carolina $600m immediately, and the Department of Energy remains obligated to remove the plutonium by 2037.
South Carolina will allow the DOE 16.5 years to remove the remaining plutonium from Savannah River or monetary penalties will be re-instated and the DOE will be subject to additional litigation.
The settlement, the single largest in South Carolina’s history, ends a highly contentious battle that involved multiple federal and state administrations and “threatened to paralyse the country’s industrial complex and pit the state against the federal government for decades”, said South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson.
After the Cold War the DOE was challenged with finding a method to dispose of large amounts of weapons-grade nuclear material, including weapons grade plutonium. In early 2000, the DOE determined that the best option would be to irradiate the material at a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at the Savannah River site in South Carolina.
Work started on the MOX facility in 2007 with a scheduled startup of 2016. In 2012 the US Government Accountability Office suggested it would probably not start up before 2019 and cost at least $7.7bn, far above original estimate of $4.9bn.
In 2015, a DOE report concluded that disposal of the weapons-grade plutonium in a repository would be cheaper than through the construction and operation of the MOX fuel fabrication facility. The project was cancelled in 2017 when it was about 70% complete.
As part of 2002 legislation, Congress required that in the event the MOX facility failed to achieve its production goals, the DOE would be required to remove the plutonium shipped to South Carolina for processing.
The legislation provided that if the MOX production was not met and the material was not removed by a certain deadline, then DOE would have to remit economic and impact assistance payments to South Carolina of $1m a day for each day that certain milestones went unmet, up to a maximum of $100m a year.
Currently, 9.5 tonnes of plutonium brought into the state for the MOX facility remain in South Carolina. The next statutory deadline for removal is 1 January 2022, after which the DOE would have to pay the $1m a day, up to a maximum $100m a year until all the plutonium is removed.
The current timeline projects the 9.5 tonnes will be completely removed by 2049, which means that without the settlement agreement, the DOE would be subject to economic and impact assistance payments of more than $2bn.