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Posted on Thu, May. 02, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Governor goes to court to head off shipments to Savannah River Site

Staff Writer

Hodges sues U.S. to block plutonium

Gov. Jim Hodges sued the federal government Wednesday in an attempt to block U.S. plutonium shipments from Colorado to South Carolina, which he fears could become a dumping ground for the toxic material.

The governor's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Aiken, accuses the U.S. Department of Energy of failing to properly study the environmental impacts of storing and processing plutonium at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex.

Hodges' suit seeks to stop shipments, scheduled to begin this month, until the "DOE complies with applicable law."

The governor said it could take six months to a year to conduct the proper environmental studies on storage and processing of plutonium in South Carolina.

"If we're successful, there will be a significant delay in their ability to ship plutonium to South Carolina," Hodges said. "It would throw a significant roadblock in their way."

His suit seeks an injunction against the shipments. The governor may also seek a temporary restraining order, which could require a swift hearing on whether to stop the shipments.

Hodges' decision to sue follows weeks of negotiations between state leaders and the DOE over how to resolve the dispute over plutonium shipments to the state.

The Democratic governor is pushing for an agreement that binds the federal government to remove the material. Agency officials have said they would remove the material. But to guarantee the federal government keeps its word, Hodges wants the deal filed in court or crafted into a law passed by Congress.

DOE officials have said repeatedly that South Carolina will not become a permanent disposal site for plutonium, but the agency has been unable to reach an accord with Hodges.

Without an agreement, Hodges has threatened to block shipments at the border with state troopers or to lie down in the road himself.

Energy Department officials still plan to begin shipping plutonium from the Rocky Flats, Colo., nuclear complex to the Savannah River Site near Aiken as soon as May 15, agency spokesman Joe Davis said. DOE plans to convert the plutonium into mixed oxide fuel, which would be used at commercial nuclear power plants in the Carolinas.

Hodges said that unless state officials act now, "plutonium could begin crossing our borders two weeks from today with no legal safeguards for our state."

Despite his lawsuit, Hodges said he has not given up on negotiations. If a solution can be worked out, Hodges told the state's congressional delegation he would drop the lawsuit.

Hodges' decision drew sharp criticism from the Energy Department and from U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., said he understands the governor's action.

Davis, the DOE spokesman, accused Hodges of "political grandstanding for the cameras." He said the DOE would continue to try to resolve the dispute, and had made some progress Wednesday.

"We are therefore disappointed that in light of our most recent good faith efforts to satisfy the governor, ... he chooses instead to run to the courthouse," an agency statement said. "This action is totally inconsistent with a desire to work things out."

Graham said the lawsuit would make it harder to reach an agreement with the federal government that suits the state. Graham does not believe South Carolina can win a lawsuit against the DOE because he says the shipments are vital to national security interests.

International agreements call for processing the plutonium into a form that's unsuitable for use in nuclear weapons.

"To believe that today's lawsuit doesn't chill negotiations with DOE is unrealistic," Graham said.

Graham said the state already has won major concessions. Among them is a commitment to remove the plutonium by 2017 if a program to turn the material into mixed oxide fuel falls apart.

The government also would have to pay fines of $1 million per day or up to $100 million per year if the MOX program doesn't work, or if it fails to meet production schedules. The DOE agreed to these concessions last weekend, Graham said.

Hodges, however, said Wednesday that those concessions aren't strong enough.

Hodges' suit said plutonium is so toxic it can give people cancer if inhaled in even small amounts. The lawsuit alleges that in changing plans numerous times on how it would store and treat plutonium, the DOE violated federal environmental laws.

According to the suit, the Department of Energy:

 Decided April 19 to store plutonium long term at the Savannah River Site. But the agency also said it would wait to make a final decision on building a MOX fuel plant at SRS. That's illegal under the National Environmental Policy Act because the change in long-term storage plans weren't studied in detail;

 Can't legally move plutonium to South Carolina because it has eliminated a program to immobilize the material at SRS. The agency initially had two plans for dealing with plutonium at SRS. Besides MOX, the agency was to create an immobilization program that would encase plutonium in glass;

 Decided, in violation of federal law, to ship some plutonium to South Carolina in containers that don't meet federal standards. The containers, known as DT-22s, have failed federal "crush" tests for transport;

 Did not allow the state due process in deciding "abruptly" to store the material long term at SRS without tying it directly to treatment.

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