Gov. Jim Hodges is right to take an adamant stand against
allowing shipments of plutonium to the Savannah River Site until
there are enforceable guarantees that this dangerously radioactive
material will be removed within a specific time.
When I arrived at the Legislature in 1977, South Carolina had the
dubious distinction of storing or burying more nuclear waste than
any other state85 percent of the country's low-level waste in
Barnwell, and more than 30 percent of the country's high-level
radioactive defense wastes in Aiken.
As nuclear wastes are also politically lethal, waste ends up in
the state which is the least resistant to having itand that was
South Carolina in 1977. Change came when newly elected Gov. Riley
and a group of progressive legislators said fair is fair, enough is
enough, and set out to bring about some equity. It is important to
know about the failed deadlines and broken promises in our nuclear
waste history to understand Gov. Hodges' present position.
The high-level defense waste, about 35 million gallons of liquid
sludge, is stored at SRS in rusting containers (which have been
known to leak). It is the residue from producing the ingredients for
atom bombs. When SRS was built, the plan was for this waste to be
moved out within 10 years, but almost 50 years later, it is still
there. It cannot be moved until solidified, a process which has
finally begun after years of delays, and until there is a place to
move it to.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 ordered the Department of
Energy to begin the disposal of commercial and defense wastes in a
repository, not later than Jan. 1, 1998. But we now know it will be
many more years before a repository is in place and ready.
As to low-level waste, South Carolina led the effort in 1980 to
create the Southeast Low-Level Nuclear Waste Compact. It provided,
in state and federal law, that our site would close down in 1992,
when another state would take over this responsibility. Again, this
did not happen. North Carolina, which was selected to be the next
state, dragged its heels, and Gov. Carroll Campbell, while
supporting the compact approach, postponed the closing until
But in 1996 a new governor, David Beasley, and the Legislature,
bending to lobbyist pressure, quit the compact and reopened the site
to the whole country. We were back to where we started in 1980until
the next governor, Mr. Hodges, began the struggle all over again. He
partially succeeded, creating a new compact with only two other
states, which closes the site to the 47 other states in 2008, and
already limits waste from them now.
Back to today's problem. DOE promises that once the plutonium
comes to SRS from Colorado it will be disposed of by being turned
into fuel, called MOX, to be used by Duke Power. When Gov. Hodges
demanded guarantees this would happen, so that we would not end up
holding the waste forever, state Republican leaders joined the
battle, negotiated with federal officials and quickly declared
Congress, they said, would pass their proposed law to assure that
a certain amount of waste would be moved out of South Carolina by a
certain date, or DOE would pay a huge fine. But Sen. Fritz Hollings
says that it will be months for such a law to be passed, long after
the DOE shipping day set for May 15. Congressman John Spratt says
the proposed bill has serious loopholes.
One rationale for the MOX program is to reduce the amount of
plutonium to satisfy a disarmament agreement with Russia, which will
do the same. But, according to an article in The State, the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission has expressed concern that there's no
guarantee that the Russian program will ever get off the ground. And
just weeks after DOE endorsed the program, it announced in the
Federal Register that the MOX program is still under review.
So, what's the hurry with so much uncertainty and no guarantees
in hand? According to The New York Times, there are those who say
the administration wants to help a Republican Colorado senator who,
in a tight election battle, pledged to get rid of the 34 tons of
plutonium stored in Colorado. Is South Carolina seen once again as
the path of least resistance? But Gov. Hodges is resisting, and
rightly so, in light of the long list of broken nuclear-waste
For those who say he is just posturing when he can't possibly
win, I reply that the governor of Idaho did win when he demanded
similar guarantees from DOE. We should persist until we do,
Ms. Keyserling is a former member of the S.C.