April 18 The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has expressed doubt
about the Bush administration's $3.8 billion plan to convert nuclear
warheads to power-plant fuel, raising questions about whether it
will become the nation's principal method of disposing of plutonium
once aimed at the Soviet Union.
The doubts expressed by the commission, which is independent,
appear to bolster the contention of the State of South Carolina that
plutonium scheduled to be shipped from Colorado next month may never
be converted to fuel at a government plant on the Savannah
South Carolina's governor, Jim Hodges, has threatened to block
the shipments with state troopers unless the federal government
guarantees that the plutonium will be removed from the state if the
conversion program collapses.
The conversion plan is part of the 1996 agreement between the
United States and Russia to decommission most of their cold war
missiles and render the plutonium inside unusable for weapons. In
January, the Bush administration announced that it had settled on a
plan to process the warheads into mixed-oxide fuel for power plants,
but the plan is contingent upon the Russians doing the same.
Most of the converted fuel, known as MOX, would have gone to two
nuclear power plants in North Carolina and South Carolina run by the
Energy Corporation. In February, Duke officials told the
regulatory commission that the conversion plan might never
"Substantial uncertainties and contingencies continue to surround
the program," the company wrote in a legal memorandum. It said the
program's future depended on Russia's cooperation, future decisions
by the federal Department of Energy, and the ability of the
department to get a license for the conversion plant.
At the time, Duke was fighting off a challenge by two
environmental groups, which argued that the company's reactor
licenses should not be renewed if Duke planned to use the untested
MOX fuel. On April 12, the regulatory commission dismissed the
environmental groups' challenge, saying the future of the MOX
program was so uncertain that it should not be the basis of a
The commission said "we see no reason to doubt Duke's statement"
that the MOX program was riddled with uncertainties, and it said any
number of events could occur in the next six years that would make
it impossible to use the converted fuel in a power plant.
The statement was welcomed in the South Carolina governor's
office, which said it had every right to worry that the plutonium
would not be processed and would remain in the state
"The Duke and N.R.C. statements validate Governor Hodges's
position against allowing plutonium into South Carolina without an
ironclad agreement that it will be removed," said Cortney Owings, a
spokeswoman for the governor. "There are a lot of questions that
need to be answered involving this process."
The Department of Energy has said it must begin shipping
plutonium from the Rocky Flats nuclear site outside Denver by May
15, or it will not make its deadline to close down the site by
Ambassador Linton Brooks, chief of the Energy Department's
nuclear nonproliferation programs, said today that the regulatory
commission's position simply stated the obvious fact that the
program was not finished yet. But Mr. Brooks said resolving the
dispute with South Carolina would eliminate much of that
"There are a lot of things that we need to make sure come out
right, and that's why we're so anxious that we resolve the issue
with the state," he said. "The biggest impediment to getting the
Russian program going is uncertainty about our program."
The department's insistence that the shipments begin quickly was
supported on Wednesday by the Kaiser-Hill Company, a private
contractor that is cleaning up the Rocky Flats site for the
department. In November, the president of the company said it did
not matter when the first shipments began, but in Wednesday's
statement, the company agreed with the department that the shipments
must begin by late spring or the deadline would not be met.
Company officials said they had a strict timetable that required
the plutonium to be removed by 2003, so full decontamination of the
site could begin. The shipments from Colorado to South Carolina are
estimated to take at least a year, assuming Governor Hodges allows
the trucks in.
Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado, who has led the effort to close
Rocky Flats, said the administration's support of immediate
shipments from his state had nothing to do with his re-election
campaign, as South Carolina officials have charged, but with the
need to ensure that the agreement with Russia was proceeding.
"This issue has never been about Colorado vs. South Carolina,"
Mr. Allard said. "It has always been about national security."
If the shipments do not begin in 30 days, he said, "our national
security and environmental safety will be