Two decades of wrangling between the State of South Carolina and the Federal government over the storing of nuclear materials at the Savannah River Site (SRS) was settled today.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) agrees to immediately pay the state $600 million – the single largest legal settlement for state government in history. The monumental agreement was announced at a Statehouse news conference Monday that ends years of legal actions over how the nation’s excess weapons-grade plutonium will eventually leave SRS and Aiken County.
SC’s Demands Finally Met
SC Attorney General Alan Wilson made the announcement. Looking back over the years of contentious litigation, Wilson stated, “Our state did not waiver in demanding what is right and just for our people. “
South Carolina has been locked in a protracted legal fight with the Energy Department for years, seeking to force it to remove the plutonium from the state. Its case centered on a deadline Congress once set for the Energy Department to remove the material: the beginning of 2022.
The settlement is an acknowledgment by the state and the federal government that there was no chance the deadline would be met. Terms of the deal include a DOE promise to remove from South Carolina 9.5 metric tons of plutonium by 2037. If it fails, DOE is obligated to pay up to $1.5 billion in additional fines depending on how much plutonium is left in 2037. If all the material is out by then, the government won’t pay anything more.
U.S. Energy Secretary: “Good Day for SC!”
U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette joined the news conference explaining that while the settlement gives the federal government an extra 15 years to move the plutonium out of South Carolina, he pledged that the plutonium would be removed on a faster timetable.
Secretary Brouillette said, “This is a good day for South Carolina.”
He added, “The Trump administration is committed to tackling our nation’s toughest challenges where previous administrations have failed, including the removal and disposal of Cold War-era plutonium from the state of South Carolina.”
The dispute over plutonium predates the Trump administration.
The Obama administration failed to support the MOX project; the under-funding resulted in its eventual termination. By some estimates, MOX was 70% constructed when abandoned. Sen. Lindsay Graham said today that canceling MOX was a “shortsighted” and “colossal” mistake.
Spending the Money
The big question is – what will be done with the $600 million federal payment? That will be up to the General Assembly. Attorney General Wilson described the timing as opportune; the settlement money is an unexpected windfall to state coffers during a time when the state’s economy has been dented by the COVID-19 crisis.
For one, I will press for a portion of that $600 million come directly to Aiken County. After all, SRS resides in Aiken and Barnwell Counties and this area is most directly affected by having decades of weapons-grade plutonium housed here.
Topping my wish list are two new projects closely linked to SRS’ missions:
- $15 million to fund the state’s portion of the SC National Guard DreamPort which would house the NG Cyber Battalion (one of four in the nation). This Cyber Center, to be located on the campus of USC-Aiken, will collaborate with the National Lab at SRS, Army Cyber Command at Ft. Gordon and an array of SC industry and businesses to protect our cyber infrastructure from increasing threats.
- Ground will be broken in a few weeks for the Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative (AMC) at USC-Aiken. The AMC will be an innovation hub for manufacturing, fostering modern industrial practices, advancing new technologies and training the future manufacturing workforce with a focus on chemical and materials manufacturing. The AMC is a true public-private partnership, combining the unique capabilities of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Laboratories, industrial enterprises, and educational institutions to drive the long-term sustainability of the U.S. manufacturing sector. The project was de-scoped in order to receive federal funding, but with the addition of $10 million the facility can add back into its plans the necessary laboratories and research spaces that will thrust AMC into cutting-edge 21st Century processes throughout South Carolina.
This legislative session is far from over. The Senate returns to session next week and the House and Senate both return to the Statehouse for a two-week session mid-September. Because the pandemic cut-short the regular session, a state budget for the 20-21 year was not finalized. Instead, the General Assembly wisely passed a Continuing Resolution to fund state government at last year’s level.
Monday, state revenue forecasters estimated that SC has more than $800 million in new money to spend, despite the pandemic’s economic damage. That money could help beef-up reserves or go toward some of the state’s critical spending priorities.
It remains to be seen whether a new budget will be hammered out quickly or we continue to spend at last year’s level holding any additional revenue for unforeseen circumstances caused by COVID-19. Stay tuned.
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In your Service,
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