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By Tim Smith
COLUMBIA - U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham said Monday he won't let objections of Gov. Jim Hodges or U.S. Rep. John Spratt stop him from filing legislation to regulate how plutonium is brought into the state by the federal government.
Spratt and Hodges voiced objections Monday to the plan by Graham and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, two days after Graham and other Republican leaders announced they would file legislation that would give South Carolina $1 million a day if the U.S. Energy Department doesn't process and remove plutonium from the state.
More than 30 tons of plutonium at a former nuclear weapons facility near Denver, Colo., is to be shipped to the Savannah River Site near Aiken next month. The Energy Department wants to use the plutonium as part of a new program to convert weapons-grade plutonium to fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors.
Hodges has threatened to use State Troopers to stop the shipments unless the state has a legally binding agreement from the federal government that includes fines and penalties if the dangerous material is not removed when promised.
The governor worked with Graham over the weekend on the legislation.
Graham said Saturday he had hoped to file it on Monday. Instead, he learned Hodges and Spratt had problems with the plan.
"The governor believes there are major deficiencies in the proposed bill," said Cortney Owings, a Hodges spokeswoman. "He is working with the congressional delegation to remedy the problems."
Owings declined to detail Hodges' objections and said the governor was returning from an out-of-state trip and was unavailable for comment.
Spratt said he had "major problems" with the proposal, especially with the language spelling out when the plutonium has to be removed. He said the current language makes it too open to interpretation.
He also said parts of an agreement by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham are not included in the legislation.
Graham said he is trying to resolve concerns by Spratt and Hodges but said time is running out.
"If for some reason we can't get an agreement about a statute, I'm going to introduce legislation that I think protects the state," he said. "I think the big issues have been addressed and we've gotten a commitment from the administration....Time is of the essence."
Graham said the proposal requires that if the mixed-oxide fuel plant is not operating at Savannah River by 2017, all the plutonium would have to be removed.
But Spratt said the language of the bill could result in the government taking 34 years to take it out.
Graham said the government expects to be finished processing all the fuel by 2020. But he said officials came up with that date hoping to produce at least three tons of fuel a year, a rate no one is sure can be attained.
He said he does not want to see the government forced to close the plant if it is operating successfully.
"If we're taking weapons material and turning it a into non-weapons form here and in Russia, we want that to go on," he said. "For anybody to try and end that program is doing the world a great disservice."
Graham said he wants to file the legislation this week. He said he wants the Energy Department to allow the state to retain its rights to sue the government if the legislation does not pass and for Hodges to agree not to sue the government if it does pass. He also wants the agency to wait until after the legislation is passed before beginning shipments.
"I think both parties, if they are genuine about wanting to resolve this, should be able to do this," he said. "This is a business deal.
"There's Republicans in this mix running for different offices. There's Democrats in this mix running for different offices. We've all got political desires and needs. But plutonium doesn't know a Democrat from a Republican.
South Carolina needs to have a business deal that transcends parties."
The proposal would cap the fines at $100 million a year and require the agency to report to Congress each year how the program is progressing.
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