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Local News Wednesday, April 17, 2002
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Spratt can't likely block plutonium
Lawrence M. O'Rourke Herald Washington Bureau

(Published April 17 2002)

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 next month.

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 said.

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 said.

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 the state.

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 Carolina project.

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 South Carolina."

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 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."

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Copyright 2002 The Herald, South Carolina