Story Filed: Tuesday, April 16, 2002 6:36 AM EDT
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Gov. Jim Hodges isn't backing down from the federal government just because the Energy Department says it's ready to begin shipments of plutonium to South Carolina next month.
Hodges had said previously that he's ready to send state troopers to intercept the truckloads or even lie in the road himself to stop them. His spokesman renewed those calls on Monday upon learning that U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham wants to start the shipments around May 15.
``The governor made it very clear that the 30-day notice would escalate the situation,'' spokesman Jay Reiff said. ``Troopers blocking shipments is an option. Legal avenues will be aggressively pursued. You use every feasible tool.''
Abraham said in a letter to Hodges that it was ``essential'' to begin the shipments to meet a schedule for closing the Rocky Flats weapons facility in Colorado by 2006.
The Bush administration wants to transport excess plutonium from weapons facilities around the country to the department's Savannah River complex near Aiken, where it will be made into mixed oxide fuel to run commercial nuclear reactors.
Hodges has vowed to intercept any shipments unless he gets firm agreement -- subject to federal court enforcement -- that the plutonium will not remain in South Carolina permanently.
By giving the 30-day notice required by Congress, Abraham issued a clear signal to Hodges that the Bush administration intends to pursue the shipments, over the governor's objections if necessary, Energy Department officials said.
A spokesman for the department would not discuss how the federal government would react to troopers at the state's borders or lawsuits.
It's not in the government's best interest to talk about ``armed confrontation,'' spokesman Joe Davis said. ``We think we can get these issues resolved.''
In a separate letter to key members of Congress, Abraham said his intention is to begin shipments of 76 trailer loads of plutonium from Rocky Flats shortly after May 15, continuing through June, 2003.
Reps. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Spratt, D-S.C., were working on legislation that could break the impasse, Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop said. A bill under consideration could require that plutonium not be left in the state permanently.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., called the department's decision ``great news'' and said he would work with South Carolina's congressional delegation to ease the state's concerns.
The standoff over the shipments escalated last week when Abraham rejected a demand from Hodges that a federal judge oversee the enforcement of any agreement on the plutonium shipments.
Abraham outlined what he called a string of concessions to ease the governor's concerns. Among them is a formal commitment to take the plutonium back if the conversion plant falls behind schedule or runs into funding trouble.
But Hodges told Abraham he wants more assurances in a formal consent agreement that would allow a federal judge to oversee the process.
Abraham rejected the courts' involvement, saying it would amount to ``an attempt to conduct ... national security and foreign policy affairs through the judicial process'' and ``goes beyond what we can do.''
On the Net:
Energy Department: http://www.energy.gov/
Hodges' office: http://www.state.sc.us/governor/
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