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Posted on Fri, May. 03, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Plutonium bill introduced

Staff Writer

A day after Gov. Jim Hodges filed a lawsuit to block shipments of weapons plutonium headed for South Carolina, U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond introduced legislation also intended to protect the state from becoming a permanent storage site for plutonium.

The bills introduced by Graham and Thurmond would require the federal government to pay a fine if it does not reprocess the plutonium into nuclear power-plant fuel by a fixed date.

As recently as the weekend, Democratic and Republican elected officials were working together with the U.S. Department of Energy on proposed legislation. Over the weekend, Graham announced the department had agreed to pay fines if the reprocessing program never got off the ground.

But early this week, Hodges countered that Graham's plan was unacceptable because it doesn't do enough to push the federal government to remove the plutonium from the state. Graham said Hodges' conditions were unworkable.

When the governor sued, he "chilled promising negotiations," Graham said in a statement. Graham said he introduced the bill to protect the concessions the state had already won from the Department of Energy.

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

The Department of Energy plans to dismantle nuclear bombs as part of a disarmament agreement with Russia. As early as May 15, the department plans to send truckloads of plutonium from its Rocky Flats, Colo., facility to the Savannah River Site near Aiken, 160 miles southwest of Charlotte.

At the SRS, the radioactive substance would be turned into mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel to be used in Duke Power's Charlotte-area nuclear plants.

Hodges has threatened to use state troopers to block shipments unless the department will guarantee the plutonium will eventually be removed from the state.

Hodges, Graham and U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-York, worked last week and through the weekend with the Department of Energy to draft a bill all sides could agree to outlining when plutonium could come to the state and when it would have to be removed.

Early this week, however, it was clear Hodges and Graham disagreed on fundamental points of the proposed legislation.

Graham announced over the weekend that the department had agreed to a bill that would require it to pay a fine if it does not begin producing or removing one ton of plutonium by 2011 and the plutonium is not completely removed by 2017.

Hodges and Spratt supported a draft of a bill that would require the department to remove plutonium from the state even if the MOX program works smoothly, setting more milestones for the department to meet and give more assurance that the plutonium would be removed.

When he filed suit Wednesday, Hodges said he wanted to protect the state's interests and keep its options open. He said he would drop the suit if state officials could reach agreement with the Department of Energy.

Hodges spokesman Jay Reiff said the governor's office had received only a press release from Graham's office Thursday, so Hodges hadn't been able to evaluate the legislation.

"We have to review the fine print ... to see if it gets the job done," Reiff said. "The devil is in the details."

Spratt was unavailable for comment. Spratt aide Rudy Barnes said Spratt had no immediate plans to introduce his own bill on the subject.

Hodges' lawsuit argues the Department of Energy neglected to complete environmental studies required before moving plutonium to SRS.

Department spokesman Joe Davis said in a statement that the bills introduced by Graham and Thurmond and the work everyone has done to reach a compromise were appreciated.

"Unfortunately, the recent filing of a lawsuit by Gov. Jim Hodges runs completely counter to any effort to work together to reach a solution," Davis said in the statement. "We hope that the governor would join his own delegation in Congress and work to pass this legislation, and withdraw his ill-timed, unnecessary and counterproductive lawsuit."

Jennifer Talhelm: (803) 327-8507;
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