Posted Tuesday, April 16, 2002 - 9:07 pm

Republicans split over governor's plutonium stance
By James T. Hammond
Capital Bureau

COLUMBIA -- State Republican leaders split Tuesday over Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges' demand for federal guarantees on plutonium disposal in South Carolina.

U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, whose district includes the SRS plant where the plutonium is headed, said the governor's position "is not unreasonable."

But Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler and House Speaker David Wilkins issued a joint statement saying in part that "holding irresponsible posturing meetings for the public is not helpful."

And Attorney General Charlie Condon threatened to independently negotiate with the Energy Department over terms to build a mixed-oxide fuel plant at the Savannah River Site to convert surplus weapons-grade plutonium to commercial nuclear fuel.

Regarding the governor's demands for legally binding guarantees, Peeler and Wilkins said, "As we discussed with DOE earlier this year, the transportation of nuclear weapons material is serious business done by serious people."

They said Hodges' "posturing" position "gets us no closer to our goal of building two major facilities and creating jobs in South Carolina for a viable economy."

But Graham, the Third District congressman and candidate for the U.S. Senate, said, "The governor's position to have legally binding guarantees is a very sound position to take."

Condon, however, said he was assured by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham Tuesday that a new "Record of Decision" would be legally binding upon the federal government.

Abraham said Monday plutonium would be shipped to South Carolina beginning as early as May 15.

"The governor's goal is to have a confrontation," Condon said at a noon press conference.

Jay Reiff, the governor's spokesman, said Condon is "dead wrong" about the enforceability of unilateral Energy Department decisions. "If they were legally binding, such decisions would not have been changed in the past without the state's consent," he said.

"The governor is pleased he has bi-partisan congressional support. He looks forward to working with Congressman Graham and Congressman (John) Spratt to craft a solution in Congress," Reiff said.

Graham agreed, adding that an agency decision is not as legally binding as a law.

Hodges traveled to the Columbia suburbs Tuesday to meet with Highway Patrol commanders to discuss ways to physically block shipments of plutonium to South Carolina if the Energy Department makes good its threat to start the trucks rolling from Colorado on May 15.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis expressed dismay.

"We continue to work with members of Congress on legislative assurances on an agreement that we believe is already legally enforceable. We believe we can get it done in 30 days. But it's astonishing that on the first day the governor would have a meeting on how to build a better roadblock rather than working with us," Davis said.

Quick resolution is necessary to meet the agency's 2006 target to clean up the former weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado, and to meet disarmament treaty obligations with Russia, he said.

Graham said failure to meet those international treaty obligations would be "a failure of monumental proportions. If we don't get the shipments from Colorado moving on time, it will create a domino effect that will be bad for our country."

But Graham said the 30-day notice should not mean shipments must begin on May 15. If it takes 40 days or more to pass the legislative guarantees, Abraham should hold back the shipments, Graham said.

Hodges and Abraham have been inched toward agreement since last summer. On Thursday, Abraham sent Hodges a proposed agreement and urged the governor to sign it. If Hodges did not do so, Abraham said plutonium shipments would begin approximately May 15 anyway.

Hodges accepted the terms, but insisted upon a court decree to make them enforceable. Abraham offered support for a Congressional guarantee instead. Hodges said Monday a Congressional guarantee would be acceptable, but no shipments should take place in advance of the guarantee.

On Monday, Abraham issued the necessary 30-day notice that shipments would begin as early as May 15. Hodges' response Tuesday was to meet with leaders of the state Highway Patrol to discuss ways to blockade state borders to keep the plutonium out of South Carolina.

Bush administration allies labeled the governor's actions as "irresponsible," and said Hodges should accept the Energy Department's terms.

But Graham repeated his statement made Friday that plutonium shipments from a former nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado, should be delayed until Congress has guaranteed that South Carolina will not become the de facto permanent disposal site for the deadly nuclear material.

"We've talked to the governor's office. We must get the congressional delegation on board. The congressional leadership understands how important this is to the country. The administration is going to have to get behind this and help push it through," Graham said.

The confrontation between the state and federal governments has been super-heated by election-year politics. Hodges is seeking re-election, while Peeler and Condon are contestants for the Republican nomination to oppose Hodges in the November general election. And Graham is seeking the U.S. Senate seat held by 99-year-old Strom Thurmond.

With the balance of power in the U.S. Senate currently held by the Democrats by a one-vote margin, every Senate race in the nation is important to the Bush administration.

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