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Posted on Tue, Apr. 16, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Feds put S.C. on notice
Plutonium will be sent to state, Energy Secretary Abraham tells Hodges

Staff Writer

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 forthcoming.

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 said.

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 resolved.''

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 processing program.

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.

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