Gov. Jim Hodges and state law enforcement leaders began
pre-paring Tuesday to stop federal plutonium shipments headed for
South Carolina next month from a nuclear weapons complex in
The governor's preparations come amid escalating tensions between
the Republican Bush administration and Democrat Hodges, who opposes
plutonium shipments to the state without a legally binding agreement
that it won't be stored here forever.
Plutonium is a highly toxic material used for decades to make
Hodges didn't provide many details of how the state government
would stop federal trucks laden with plutonium destined for storage
at the Savannah River Site. But, in addition to a possible lawsuit,
Hodges hasn't ruled out using state troopers and transport officers
to delay or block the plutonium convoy.
During a brief meeting open to the news media, the governor told
the state Department of Public Safety to examine "safety concerns"
about toxic shipments on state highways and report back to him next
He also ordered the department to "thoroughly examine" the
entrances to the SRS site. He wasn't more specific, but his concerns
likely center on routes that trucks might take to reach the nuclear
weapons complex outside Aiken near the Georgia border.
Additionally, Hodges said S.C. transportation officials need to
talk with their counterparts from neighboring states about shared
concerns over the plutonium shipments. Hodges said officials in
other states would need to be aware of South Carolina's plans if it
tried to stop plutonium shipments at the border.
Hodges' orders will update plans his office made last summer.
That's when South Carolina learned plutonium could be shipped to SRS
without a clear plan to remove it, Hodges has said.
"Our goal is to make sure that no plutonium is shipped into South
Carolina's borders without a firm agreement on how the material is
going to be treated and when it is going to leave," Hodges said. "We
need to look at every-thing that's available to help us in achieving
our goal of protecting the public health and safety of South
Federal Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis criticized Hodges'
actions Tuesday, saying the federal government wants a compromise
with South Carolina. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has offered
plans to Hodges that Abraham says would ensure the plutonium doesn't
stay in South Carolina indefinitely.
The DOE formally notified Hodges late Monday that it would start
shipping plutonium to SRS as early as May 15. The energy department
still hopes to work out a compromise with the governor that
satisfies his concerns, Davis said.
"I think it's astonishing ... that the governor would choose
to have a meeting to try to build a better roadblock, rather than
work with us and the members of Congress," Davis said. "This is
Trucks full of plutonium from the Rocky Flats, Colo., site would
be guarded by federal agents, officials have said. The plutonium
would come in tightly packed, double-insulated containers for
shipment to SRS, Davis said.
The office of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., said Tuesday the
senator was working to get the plan added to the fiscal 2003 defense
bill. That would ensure the plutonium would leave SRS eventually,
his office said.
The dispute has simmered for months over federal plans to process
plutonium at SRS into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants. The
excess plutonium would come from old nuclear weapons sites across
the country that are being cleaned up.
Arms agreements with Russia call for both countries to neutralize
weapons-grade plutonium so it can't again be used for atomic bombs.
One way to do that is through the mixed oxide fuel, or MOX, plants
to be built at SRS.
Hodges, however, says there's no guarantee the MOX plants will be
built and South Carolina would be stuck with the plutonium. The Bush
administration has pledged nearly $4 billion over 20 years to build
the plants. But Hodges argues Bush can't say what will happen in 20
In the meantime, Abraham has offered to move the material out of
the state if the plutonium program goes awry. Hodges wants a federal
court order to make sure that happens, but Abraham has balked at the
Tuesday's developments came as state Republican leaders
criticized Hodges for failing to accept the Bush administration's
offer to resolve the dispute.
"What I'm puzzled about is the governor appears determined to
have a confrontation," said Attorney General Charlie Condon, a GOP
gubernatorial candidate who spoke Tuesday with Abraham. "The energy
secretary says he will do anything to let South Carolina have a
legally binding and legally enforceable agreement."
Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler, also a GOP candidate for governor, and
Republican House Speaker David Wilkins issued a joint statement
accusing Hodges of political posturing.
"The transportation of nuclear material is serious business done
by serious people," the statement said. "Holding irresponsible
posturing meetings for the public is not helpful."