WASHINGTON - As Gov. Jim Hodges
declared he would assign state troopers to South Carolina's borders
to block federal shipments of plutonium, a key U.S. lawmaker
conceded there's virtually no chance Congress could intervene in
time to halt the first convoy of the highly radioactive material.
Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., said he and Rep. Lindsay Graham,
R-S.C., are rushing to tack an amendment banning the shipments onto
a defense authorization bill scheduled for committee action early
But even if the committee and then the full House approve the
measure - over Bush administration objections - it's not likely the
Senate would act in time to stop the first few shipments, Spratt
While Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has not
scheduled floor action on the defense authorization bill, the
Senate's legislative pipeline appears full for several months.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has announced plans to ship
weapons-grade plutonium from Rocky Flats, Colo., to the government's
Savannah River Site as soon as May 15.
Abraham said the federal government intends to transport 34
metric tons of plutonium in 76 trailers to the site near Aiken.
In a letter to members of Congress, Abraham said the federal plan
calls for nine shipments a month from mid-May to June 2003.
The plan, said Abraham, "calls for disposing of 34 metric tons of
plutonium by fabricating it into mixed-oxide fuel, thus assuring a
pathway out of South Carolina for all plutonium being transported
there." Weapons-grade plutonium would be converted into fuel for
nuclear reactions for commercial power generation.
But Congress has not approved funds for this conversion, Spratt
Nor is the eventual shipment out of South Carolina certain,
members of Congress said, noting that there's not yet a safe and
secure place to take it.
Spratt said in an interview that he and Graham have explored
legislation that would commit the federal government to a $4 billion
project with an "immobilization facility."
That facility would put the fuel after its commercial use into
special secure containers until it could be removed to Yucca
Mountain, Nev., or some other site designated by the federal
government for permanent storage.
The Spratt-Graham legislation could establish a federal "exit
strategy" in the event that the federal plan to use and remove the
plutonium from South Carolina fails.
Spratt said the legislation might include a $1 million a day fine
for the federal government to pay South Carolina if the federal
government failed to "immobilize" the plutonium and remove it from
Spratt said the controversy stems in part from a Bush
administration decision to "pare back" a Clinton administration
promise to include an "immobilization facility" as part of the South
While Spratt conceded there was little Congress could do right
now to halt the shipments, he said he was encouraged by "movement on
both sides" in negotiations between Abraham and Hodges.
Spratt applauded Hodges for "driving a hard bargain" in the
negotiations. Hodges said that "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
Hodges' spokesman Jeff Reiff said the governor would use state
troopers or seek court orders to stop the shipments into South
Carolina. Hodges has also said he will lie down in the road to
prevent the plutonium from being delivered. Hodges is on-target in
seeking "ironclad assurance" from federal authorities that the
plutonium will be removed from the state, Spratt said.
Spratt said Abraham was under pressure to act because of a deal
between the United States and Russia to destroy plutonium that
terrorists could use in attacks against the United States.
Preventing nuclear weapons
"We want to remove as much loose plutonium as possible so
terrorists do not get their hands on it," Spratt said. "One thing
the terrorists do not have is nuclear material, the key ingredient
in making a nuclear weapon.
"It would take only 30 pounds of plutonium to make a nuclear
weapon," he added.
Abraham noted in a letter to Hodges that it is "essential" to
begin the shipments so that he could fulfill a federal plan to close
the Rocky Flats weapons facility by 2006.
Spratt said he and Graham were discussing legislation that would
ratify any deal cut by Hodges and Abraham.
Also Tuesday, state Attorney General Charlie Condon announced
that as South Carolina's top legal official he has the authority to
enter an agreement with the Department of Energy regarding plutonium
shipments - with or without Hodges' approval.
Condon is a Republican candidate for governor and has sparred
with Hodges, a Democrat who is seeking re-election, over several
major statewide issues.
Condon said it's clear Hodges does not have the legal authority
to block the shipments.
"The Energy Secretary has full authority under national security
law to move plutonium around the country. He
doesn't want to do that, he doesn't want to have a confrontation.
I don't think anyone in this state does," Condon said.
To avoid the showdown, Condon said, there are two options:
federal legislation or a legally enforceable agreement called a
record of decision.
But Abraham will not agree to the consent decree requested by
Hodges because it could jeopardize national security, Condon said.
The consent decree would allow a federal judge to oversee the
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