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Posted on Wed, May. 08, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
History shows governor right to stand up on nuclear waste

Guest columnist

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 1996.

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 victory.

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 promises.

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, too.

Ms. Keyserling is a former member of the S.C. House.
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