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Posted on Wed, May. 01, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Hodges rejects plan to end dispute over plutonium shipments to S.C.

Staff Writer

Gov. Jim Hodges on Tuesday rebuffed a proposal for ending the state's dispute with the federal government over plutonium shipments to South Carolina.

Instead, he offered new proposals to resolve the fight.

The Democratic governor said a federal-state agreement being brokered by U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham doesn't go far enough to protect South Carolina from plutonium - a toxic, radioactive metal used to make atomic bombs.

Graham, R-S.C., was upset by Hodges' decision, arguing that his proposal is the best deal the state can get with the U.S. Department of Energy.

The DOE wants to begin shipping surplus weapons-grade plutonium from Colorado as early as this month for storage at the Savannah River Site. But Hodges and many state leaders want assurances that plutonium won't be left here forever.

Republicans and Democrats are divided on whether to accept DOE promises that the material will be processed into fuel and sent out. Graham is planning to introduce a bill in Congress to limit the time plutonium can be stored in South Carolina, whether he has Hodges' support or not.

Graham and U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., met Tuesday afternoon to go over their differences with the bill and discuss Hodges' concerns. Spratt spokesman Rudy Barnes III said DOE officials at the meeting indicated a willingness to compromise. DOE spokesman Joe Davis said the agency would continue to negotiate.

"What's good enough is a strong piece of legislation and an enforceable agreement with teeth that protects South Carolina," Hodges said during a briefing with reporters. "And until we get that, I'm not budging."

Hodges' position raised the possibility that, if no deal can be reached, he would use state troopers to block plutonium shipments, as he has threatened. He also could file a lawsuit challenging the federal shipments.

The governor, however, said he still wanted to work out an agreement with Graham and the Department of Energy. He wrote Graham on Tuesday outlining his proposals.

Among other ideas advanced by Hodges are additional $1 million per day fines if the plutonium program falls behind. Hodges wants those penalties to apply sooner than has been proposed. He also wants the DOE to agree not to ship most of the plutonium to SRS until facilities to process the material are within a year of completion.

The federal government plans to convert the plutonium into mixed oxide fuel, or MOX, for use in commercial nuclear reactors near Charlotte.

Hodges said in the letter to Graham that he was worried the government would simply pay the fines to dispose of plutonium, rather than get rid of the material. Fines agreed to by DOE last weekend are capped at $100 million per year.

Hodges said the DOE has been reluctant to agree to many of his demands, even though the agency had previously told him it would go along with the ideas.

Hodges remained steadfast Tuesday in insisting that the DOE also not ship any plutonium to South Carolina until a compromise can be reached with the agency.

Graham, a candidate for U.S. Senate, said Hodges was being unrealistic. Graham said the governor's proposals would not leave enough leeway for the DOE to operate the mixed oxide fuel program, and, in effect, "micro-manages" the agency.

He also said many demands were being made at the last minute.

"I'm having to take proposals from the governor that changes the whole direction," Graham said.

One dispute Tuesday was over how long the mixed oxide fuel program would operate at SRS. Current plans call for 34 metric tons of plutonium to be processed into MOX. Depending on the rate of production, the fuel-blending program for the 34 tons could end anywhere from 2020 to 2042, Hodges' office said.

But more plutonium is stockpiled around the nation. Hodges said there's no rush to decide if the MOX program would continue after that.

Graham suggested that if the MOX program works, it should continue indefinitely. He said the program is important because it takes plutonium used to make nuclear warheads and turns it into fuel. That makes the material useless for making bombs again.

The United States has an agreement with Russia to neutralize 34 metric tons of leftover bomb-grade plutonium, rather than make warheads out of it.

"Turning this weapons plutonium here and in Russia into a non-weapons material will make the world imminently safer because terrorists can't get ahold of this stuff," Graham said. "I think South Carolinians would like to see us do that."

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