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Posted on Wed, Apr. 17, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Hodges readies to halt plutonium

Staff Writer

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 Colorado.

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 atomic weapons.

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 week.

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 Carolina."

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 somewhat disappointing."

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 years.

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 governor's plan.

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."

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