The federal government notified South Carolina late Monday that
it will send plutonium to the state, despite Gov. Jim Hodges'
warning he'll try to block the shipments.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's decision means plutonium could
be trucked to South Carolina as early as May 15. The secretary
formally notified Hodges by letter to expect shipments as soon as 30
days from Monday.
Hodges' spokesman Jay Reiff said the governor could use state
troopers or legal methods in an effort to stop the flow of plutonium
to South Carolina. Abraham indicated last week the notice was
The governor said he remains open to a compromise allowing
plutonium into the state for temporary storage. But Hodges opposes
shipping plutonium to South Carolina without a legally enforceable
federal guarantee it won't be left here forever.
Plutonium is a highly toxic substance used to make nuclear
weapons. Exposure to certain forms of the material can increase a
person's chances of getting cancer. The government wants to truck 34
metric tons of excess plutonium to the Savannah River site in Aiken
County for processing.
"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. "The federal government is asking us to take them at their
word. Given their track record, that's just not good enough.''
Hodges spoke by telephone with Abraham early Monday, hoping to
persuade the secretary to hold off on the 30-day notice until a
compromise could be reached, Reiff said. Negotiations to resolve the
issue have been ongoing for months.
"The governor made it very clear that the 30-day notice would
escalate the situation,'' Reiff said. "Troopers blocking shipments
is an option. Legal avenues will be aggressively pursued. You use
every feasible tool.''
DOE spokesman Joe Davis said Abraham sent the notice to Hodges
because the federal government needs a place to haul plutonium from
nuclear sites under going cleanups. The most immediate need is at
the Rocky Flats nuclear site in Colorado, which is to be closed by
2006, Abraham's letter said.
"It is essential that we begin shipments of materials from Rocky
Flats to South Carolina by approximately May 15, 2002 in order to
meet the nation's goal of closing the facility,'' the letter
Davis declined to discuss how the federal government would react
to troopers at the state border or lawsuits from South Carolina.
It's not in the government's best interest to talk about "armed
confrontation,'' he said. "We think we can get these issues
In a separate letter to key members of Congress, Abraham said he
intends to start shipments of 76 trailer loads of plutonium from
Rocky Flats shortly after May 15. The shipments would continue
through June, 2003.
U.S. 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 plutonium not to be left in the state permanently.
Monday's developments are the latest in the ongoing saga of what
to do with the nation's surplus weapons' grade plutonium.
The federal government, as part of international arms agreements
with Russia, wants to render much of the plutonium useless as
nuclear weapons material by turning it into fuel for commercial
atomic power plants.
According to plans, the plutonium would be shipped to South
Carolina's Savannah River Site from other Cold War nuclear weapons
sites and stored there until the government could construct plants
at SRS to process it.
But the two processing plants won't be completed until 2009, and
despite federal funding commitments, Hodges said there are no
guarantees the government will convert the plutonium to nuclear
fuel. He wants a federal court order requiring the government to
remove the plutonium if a new president or Congress shelves the
Ironically, 75 percent of the plutonium being shipped from Rocky
Flats to SRS originally came from the South Carolina site, Davis
said. During the Cold War, SRS produced plutonium and sent it to
Rocky Flats as part of the nuclear weapons production process.
The Associated Press contributed to the story.