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Posted on Fri, Apr. 12, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
S.C. faces plutonium showdown

Staff Writer

The federal government will begin shipping deadly plutonium to South Carolina as soon as mid-May, even if the state has not agreed to accept the material for processing into atomic fuel.

Gov. Jim Hodges vowed to fight the shipments unless there is an accord.

In a letter Thursday to Hodges, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said he will formally notify the state Monday of the federal plutonium shipment plans.

The letter says the DOE intends to start sending excess plutonium by May 15, department spokesman Joe Davis confirmed Thursday.

All told, the DOE would truck about 34 metric tons of plutonium from nuclear facilities across the country for processing at SRS. Plutonium is a highly toxic atomic material used to make nuclear bombs during the Cold War.

The government, as part of nuclear nonproliferation agreements with Russia, plans to convert the material into fuel so plutonium can't be used for atomic weapons. It would be blended with uranium to make mixed oxide fuel, or MOX, and be burned in some Duke Energy nuclear power plants in the Carolinas.

But the DOE and South Carolina have been locked in a dispute since last year over the shipments.

While Hodges supports the fuel-blending program, he questioned whether the federal government will abandon or delay building the facilities needed to process the material - thus leaving tons of plutonium at SRS.

The governor said Thursday he wants a legally binding agreement that the plutonium will be shipped out of South Carolina if the federal government doesn't complete the fuel-blending program. Federal officials offered a written agreement Thursday, but Hodges said it wasn't good enough.

Abraham's proposal said the federal government would get rid of the plutonium if it can't be processed on schedule. The federal government also would seek congressional approval for the plan. The letter indicated the government would remove the plutonium within a decade if the processing program isn't done according to plans.

The Bush Administration has said the government would commit nearly $4 billion in 20 years to build two plants for conversion of plutonium into MOX fuel. Both fuel plants are to be operational by the fall of 2009, federal documents show.

Hodges said Thursday he could accept, in principle, Abraham's proposal. But Hodges said he wants the assurances put into a formal consent order filed in federal court in South Carolina.

"We are willing to accept the promises contained in your letter, but we must have confidence that promises made will be promises kept,'' Hodges said.

Davis said the DOE would not agree to a consent order because the matter shouldn't be decided in court. He said Hodges continues to change his demands.

"The governor keeps moving the goal posts in these discussions,'' Davis said. "That's something (USC football coach) Lou Holtz wouldn't do.''

Hodges said his demands have been consistent. Thursday, he renewed his pledge to block the shipments, either with state troopers or through a lawsuit, if the federal government does not reach an accord with the state.

"All options are open," he said after receiving Abraham's letter.

Abraham's announcement is the first time the DOE has given a date for sending plutonium from the Rocky Flats nuclear site in Colorado to SRS.

His letter said shipments could begin within 30 days of April 15, but the government would not send more than 3.2 metric tons of plutonium before Oct. 15.

The letter said that if, by then, Congress doesn't enact a law that requires the plutonium to be processed, the DOE will halt all shipments.

In any case, Abraham said, he can't wait much longer.

"As I have repeatedly assured you, no plutonium will move into the state of South Carolina without a pathway for that plutonium to come out,'' Abraham wrote.

"If you are unable to accept this agreement, I will proceed to take the steps I believe necessary to meet our national security and environmental cleanup objectives,'' the letter said.

A key concern is the Rocky Flats nuclear site in Colorado.

Colorado lawmakers are pressuring the Energy Department to clean up Rocky Flats. But the agency urgently needs a place to send leftover plutonium that was never used for atomic weapons.

Rocky Flats, which like SRS was a key component of the Cold War atomic weapons program, is supposed to close by 2006.

The Rocky Flats shipments would be the first to SRS. The government intends to ship about 6 metric tons of plutonium from Colorado for blending into fuel, the DOE said Thursday.

"Our inability to reach agreement is ... jeopardizing cleanup activities across the nation,'' Abraham wrote.

Abraham's letter was sent to Hodges at about the same time the governor held a news conference decrying the federal government's failure to strike a deal.

Hodges offered his own proposed agreement and challenged the federal government to sign it. That agreement said DOE would take back the plutonium if it didn't follow through on its fuel-blending plans at SRS.

"There are a lot of ways for South Carolina to get screwed in this,'' Hodges said.

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