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By Tim Smith
COLUMBIA -- Gov. Jim Hodges on Tuesday asked U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham to change a proposed bill that would levy $1-million-a-day fines against the federal government because he believes it does not go far enough to protect South Carolina.
Hodges, a Democrat, called the proposal "half a loaf" and said he is prepared to try to stop plutonium shipments next month if the federal government continues with its plans.
Graham, who on Monday said he would file the legislation without Hodges' support, accused the governor of changing his goals and attempting to "micromanage" a national security program.
"We've been talking about apples for weeks and now we're talking about oranges," Graham said.
The two men met over the weekend to work on the proposal, which Republican leaders trumpeted Saturday as a break in the year-old standoff between the state and the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Energy wants to begin shipping 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium May 15 to the Savannah River Site near Aiken, where the material would be converted to commercial nuclear reactor fuel.
Hodges has threatened to use state troopers to stop the shipments from entering the state if South Carolina cannot get a legally enforceable agreement providing penalties if the federal government doesn't remove the plutonium by a certain date.
The legislation proposed by Graham and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond would require the Energy Department to report annually on the plutonium processing program and to begin removing the metal in 2011 if a plant is not built and processing at least one ton of plutonium a year. Penalties would kick in by 2017, capped at $100 million a year.
Hodges said the Energy Department could keep unprocessed plutonium in the state until 2040 the way the legislation is drafted now, and that the agency has refused to set a date for removing all of the deadly radioactive material.
The governor sent Graham changes he said were authored by U.S. Rep. John Spratt. Hodges said he wants the penalties to be indexed for inflation, wants the agency to agree to stop shipments if funding or construction becomes a problem and to agree it will wait until facilities at Savannah River are nearly complete before shipping some types of plutonium.
And most importantly, he said, he wants the agency to agree not to ship plutonium until after the legislation passes, something he said officials have refused to do.
"A lot of things we understood to be in (the legislation) aren't," Hodges told reporters Tuesday. "This is a complicated matter. It just points out that you can't declare victory at halftime."
Asked if he was preparing to go to court to stop the shipments, Hodges replied that he was considering all options.
Graham said Hodges would lose in court and that the proposed bill offers sufficient safeguards for the state. He said he plans to continue to talk to Spratt, who also voiced problems with the bill Monday. But he said time is running out.
"This is an unprecedented deal," he said. "I'm going to introduce the statute. I just hope people will help me."
-- Tim Smith can be reached at 803-256-7367.
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