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S.C. Resists Plutonium Shipments
State Seeks Guarantee Material Won't Stay

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By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 17, 2002; Page A03

A bitter dispute between the Bush administration and South Carolina over nuclear waste disposal broke into the open this week, as the Energy Department vowed to force the state to begin accepting cross-country shipments of plutonium next month.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham notified Gov. Jim Hodges (D) late Monday that it was "essential" to begin the shipments around May 15to meet a schedule for closing the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado by 2006, as part of an agreement with Russia to simultaneously dispose of plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons. In all, 34 metric tons of plutonium from Rocky Flats and other facilities, enough to make more than 4,200 nuclear weapons, would be reprocessed at the Energy Department's Savannah River nuclear site, near Aiken, S.C., and then sold as fuel to commercial nuclear reactors.

But Hodges renewed his threat to deploy state troopers or even lie down in the middle of the road if necessary to block the shipments until he receives a legally binding guarantee that the weapons-grade plutonium will not be permanently stored in his state. The governor met yesterday with his public safety director and members of the state highway patrol and transport police to discuss the options regarding the plutonium.

"Until there is a legally enforceable agreement that holds the federal government to its word, I will do everything at my disposal to ensure that plutonium does not enter South Carolina," Hodges said.

Energy Department officials said yesterday that the administration has bent over backward to accommodate Hodges, meeting virtually every one of his demands -- except the legally binding guarantee, which would essentially give federal courts authority over an international agreement. Joe Davis, a department spokesman, said the government intends to press ahead with the planned shipments out of a concern for national security, adding: "Armed confrontation serves no useful purpose."

The controversy underscores the growing tensions between federal authorities and the states over the handling and storage of nuclear waste and the problems associated with safely transporting it over long distances.

Just as Nevada officials are disputing Energy Department claims that it can safely transport and then store vast quantities of nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain, Hodges and other South Carolina officials say they fear the government's plans for reprocessing the plutonium might fall through, leaving the Savannah River site stuck with piles of unwanted plutonium waste. Some state officials also say that truckloads of plutonium traveling more than 1,500 miles through seven or eight states could become targets for terrorists.

Abraham said the Energy Department "has gone the extra mile" in making concessions to ease the governor's concerns -- including a pledge to limit the initial shipments this year to no more than 3.2 metric tons, a formal commitment to take the plutonium back if the reprocessing plant falls behind schedule or runs into funding trouble, and support for legislation to codify the agreement. But Hodges wants the terms of the agreement entered into an order from a U.S. district court.

"The federal government is asking us to take them at their word," Hodges said. "Given their track record, that's just not good enough."

Reps. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) are drafting legislation that would ensure that the plutonium would not be left in South Carolina, but there is no guarantee that Congress will act on it within the next 30 days or before the Energy Department begins the shipments.

"I'm optimistic that everybody will behave in an adult fashion because the material that we're dealing with is very sensitive and failure to stay with the game plan has dire consequences," Graham said. "It would be wrong for anybody at the federal or state level not to roll up their sleeves and try to find a statutory solution because failure is unacceptable."

The situation arises from a 1996 agreement in which the United States and Russia pledged to take equal amounts of plutonium out of their nuclear stockpiles in an effort to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. A subsequent September 2000 agreement called for each side to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium, and the Clinton administration provisionally planned to treat the plutonium at the Savannah River site.

Under the Bush administration, the plan has focused on developing a system to convert the unwanted nuclear material into a mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for use in commercial nuclear reactors. In a letter to key members of Congress, Abraham said he intends to begin shipping 76 trailer-loads of plutonium from Rocky Flats shortly after May 15, continuing through June 2003.

During the administration review, Hodges had stated that South Carolina would not accept any plutonium shipments without assurances that there was a clear pathway out of his state in the event the administration eventually scraps its plans. Fearing that the Energy Department might soon start shipping plutonium to his state, Hodges threatened to mobilize the state government against it and appealed to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge for help.

Ridge refused to get involved, but Abraham subsequently entered into intense negotiations with the governor before signaling his frustration this week. "We need to move forward with our administration policy [to dispose of plutonium] so the Russians will continue to move forward with their policy," Davis said.

But Jay Reiff, a spokesman for Hodges, said: "The governor has many tools at his disposal . . . and, quite frankly, we won't discuss all the options for stopping them."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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