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Posted on Fri, May. 03, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Bill sets rules for plutonium shipments
Graham, Thurmond file legislation aimed at providing safeguards for S.C.

Staff Writer

Plutonium shipped to the Savannah River Site would have to be processed or moved back out of the state, according to legislation introduced Thursday by Rep. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Strom Thurmond.

The legislation, crafted to protect the state from becoming the permanent storage site for plutonium, calls for fines of up to $100 million per year if the U.S. Department of Energy fails to meet strict processing schedules.

The filing comes one day after Gov. Jim Hodges sued the Department of Energy to prevent the shipment of plutonium from Colorado to South Carolina.

Graham said the legislation includes "an ironclad requirement that all plutonium leave the state at a certain date if the (mixed oxide fuel processing) program fails."

The legislation requires that fines begin if the MOX processing hasn't started by 2011. If MOX processing hasn't started by 2017, all plutonium shipped to the state must be shipped back out.

The Energy Department plans to begin shipping plutonium from the Rocky Flats, Colo., nuclear complex to South Carolina as soon as May 15. The plan is to convert the plutonium to MOX, which would be used at commercial nuclear power plants in the Carolinas.

Hodges is concerned that the MOX conversion program could be stopped and that the plutonium could be left in South Carolina. He has threatened to block the shipments from Colorado until the Energy Department signs off on an enforceable exit plan.

Hodges filed suit in U.S. District Court in Aiken Wednesday to stop the shipments, claiming proper environmental impact documents haven't been filed by the Energy Department.

Hodges spokesman Jay Reiff said Thursday that the governor's office had not had time to examine the legislation to see if it has the desired safeguards.

"We need to make sure the legislation has the teeth in it that was lacking earlier in the week," Reiff said.

The governor also wants a commitment from the Energy Department that no plutonium will be shipped until the legislation is approved.

Graham, who has been negotiating with the Energy Department, said the legislative approach would be more effective than a lawsuit. He said the governor's lawsuit had "chilled" negotiations.

"An ill-conceived confrontation without an adequate backup plan could result in South Carolina holding the plutonium bag," Graham said. "No legislation is ever perfect. However, to sue and lose without any protection would be disastrous."

The legislation would require:

 The DOE must report to Congress on the progress of the MOX program, thereby making program failures public;

 The energy secretary must certify the MOX program is on schedule or cease shipments to Savannah River Site;

 If the program is not producing MOX by 2009, the Energy Department has two years to produce one ton of MOX or remove one ton of plutonium from the state;

 Failure to meet the MOX production requirements by 2011 would prompt fines of $1 million per day, up to $100 million per year;

 If the MOX program isn't operating by 2017, all plutonium in the state must be removed immediately, again with fines of up to $100 million per year for violations.

The Energy Department plans to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium as part of an accord it signed with Russia in 2000. The removal of plutonium suitable for use in nuclear weapons in the United States and in Russia is a security issue, Thurmond said.

The legislation "will reduce the risk of Russian nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists who could use it against the United States," Thurmond said.

Graham and Thurmond, both Republicans, touted the legislation as bipartisan and urged Democrat Hodges to come aboard. Democratic Rep. John Spratt's office said he wanted to examine the legislation before he would sign off on it.

Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said the legislation should address the concerns of the state. He called for Hodges to "withdraw his ill-timed, unnecessary and counterproductive lawsuit."

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