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Hodges sues DOE to halt plutonium shipments

Of The Post and Courier Staff

     Gov. Jim Hodges elevated the fight over plutonium shipments at the Savannah River Site Wednesday, suing the federal government to stop the planned transfer of tons of radioactive plutonium until he gets the processing agreement he wants.
     A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy called the lawsuit "totally inconsistent with a desire to work things out" and vowed to "continue working to solve the problem rather than engaging in political grandstanding."
     Hodges emphasized that his lawsuit does not halt negotiations on a storage and removal plan. It seeks only to stop any shipments from moving into the state until a signed document is in hand.
     "Unless we act now, plutonium could be crossing our border two weeks from today with no safeguards for South Carolina," Hodges said.
     "While some progress has been made, the clock is ticking," he said. "If we reach an agreement with DOE, the lawsuit can be dismissed."
     DOE wants to begin moving tons of plutonium used to build nuclear weapons from its current storage site in Rocky Flat, Colo., to SRS where it would be converted sometime over the next decade into fuel for use by commercial nuclear reactors. The shipments could begin as soon as May 15.
     Hodges filed the suit at the Aiken County Federal District Courthouse, not far from the SRS gates. He hopes to get a hearing before U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie this week or early next week. Also named in the suit is Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.
     Hodges' action drew quick criticism from U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, who has been working on a deal that would enact millions of dollars in fines against the Energy Department if the plutonium isn't processed in a timely manner.Graham, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, learned about it late in the day while he was waiting to see a return draft of proposed changes."To believe that today's lawsuit doesn't chill negotiations with DOE is unrealistic," he said. "I've always believed that a lawsuit against the federal government involving high-level national security issues will fail."
     Graham and other South Carolina leaders presented a package Saturday that met every concern the state has raised regarding plutonium shipments, and Wednesday, they worked with the DOE to resolve minor additional concerns, DOE spokesman Joe Davis said Wednesday.
     "We are therefore disappointed, that in light of our most recent good faith efforts to satisfy the governor and on what seemed to be the brink of the resolution to this problem, he chooses instead to run to the courthouse," Davis said. "This action is totally inconsistent with a desire to work things out."
     In his suit, Hodges said DOE's amended record of decision filed April 19 to move the shipments within 30 days violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Administrative Procedure Act.
     Hodges' biggest concern is that the plutonium might be parked in South Carolina indefinitely if the fuel conversion initiative, called the MOX program - for mixed oxide fuel - is never funded and the conversion plant never built.
     Graham, R-S.C., said the deal he brokered is the best plan possible. It would fine the federal government $1 million a day starting in 2011 if more than 1 ton of the plutonium has not been made into fuel for nuclear reactors. The fines would start again on Jan. 1, 2017, if all the plutonium is not converted. The penalties would continue at the same rate and with the same $100 million cap until all the nuclear material has left South Carolina.
     The fines would have to be paid and the material removed, Graham said.
     But Hodges worries that in 15 years, DOE will consider a $100 million fine an acceptable monetary loss in exchange for using SRS as a perpetual storage site.
     Graham said the deal wouldn't allow that to happen. "If the governor's lawsuit fails, legislation will be the only protection for the state," he said.
     Hodges has said he will lie down in front of trucks carrying the plutonium and use state troopers at roadblocks if an agreement is not reached.
     U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., who is also working on the storage deal, said Hodges' suit should not trigger a tone of animosity among the parties. All Hodges wants "is an enforceable exit strategy," he said.
     But Davis said Hodges' claims of urgency in filing the lawsuit are not valid because DOE cannot begin plutonium shipments until May 15.
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