Posted Tuesday, May 7, 2002 - 8:20 pm

Thurmond seeks delay of plutonium shipments
By James T. Hammond
Capital Bureau

COLUMBIA -- U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond urged Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on Tuesday to delay shipping surplus weapons-grade plutonium until at least June 15 to allow Congress time to consider legislation to guarantee South Carolina the material will eventually be removed from the state.

The Energy Department was non-committal on Thurmond's request.

"We're in the middle of a lawsuit, and we are analyzing all our options," said Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis.

Abraham notified Gov. Jim Hodges last month that the Energy Department intended to begin shipments of the plutonium to the Savannah River Site as early as May 15. Hodges last week filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking to halt those shipments until an environmental impact study could be conducted.

U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, who represents the region that includes the Savannah River Site, said Thurmond's request for a delay in the shipments may be part of the U.S. Justice Department's strategy in defending the Energy Department against the lawsuit.

"I would imagine the request for a delay has more to do with their legal position than anything else. The court is more likely to deal with the case on its merits if there is no impending event to deal with," Graham said.

"My biggest fear has always been that if we overly politicize the issue, it reduces the chance of finding a legislative compromise to protect South Carolina," Graham said.

But Thurmond's spokeswoman, Rebecca Fleming, said the South Carolina senator's request to delay the shipments has nothing to do with the lawsuit. In a statement issued by his office, Thurmond said, "I have been working to ensure that national security interests are not jeopardized and that current and future jobs are not placed at risk. My legislation was drafted to address concerns regarding the ability to enforce agreements between the Department of Energy and the state."

Graham and Thurmond have proposed "impact aid," or fines, of $1 million a day against the Energy Department if it fails to keep its promises to eventually remove the plutonium from South Carolina. Their plan would cap the fines at $100 million annually.

Hodges has characterized the proposal as inadequate.

The governor has begun running television advertisements in South Carolina urging voters to call the Energy Department and tell the agency "No plutonium in South Carolina."

On Tuesday, Hodges' office suggested the campaign was working.

"The Governor believes DOE is responding to the pressure South Carolinians are putting on DOE. The people of South Carolina will not let the federal government turn this state into a plutonium dumping ground," said Cortney Owings, Hodges' spokeswoman.

Davis urged Hodges to pull the television campaign.

"It is a well-established tradition in this country that matters of national security and foreign policy are viewed as nonpartisan, and certainly should never be politicized for personal gain," Davis said.

"It is irresponsible for Gov. Hodges to use the plutonium disposition program in political television advertisements for his re-election campaign. We hope that other responsible leaders in South Carolina would disassociate themselves with this unprecedented move by the Governor," Davis said.

The governor's office disagreed that prompt shipments from the former weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado, are urgent to preserve a national security.

"There is ample evidence that DOE's motivation behind shipping plutonium from Colorado to South Carolina now is to help (Colorado) Sen. (Wayne) Allard's re-election bid. The DOE needs to keep its word. Sign a legally enforceable agreement that protects South Carolina from becoming the nation's plutonium dumping ground and the governor will stop running the ads," Owings said.

When he announced the television campaign last week, Hodges said he would use "all of the tools available to our state to ensure that plutonium does not cross our borders until we have a legally binding agreement with the DOE that protects the health and welfare of my citizens."

The Energy Department plans to build a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at SRS that would convert the weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel. The MOX fuel would be used in Duke Energy reactors in York County, South Carolina, and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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