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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.