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Nuke shipments delayed 30 days; talks to continue
By James T. Hammond
COLUMBIA -- U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie ordered a 30-day delay in plutonium shipments to South Carolina from a former weapons plant in Colorado, giving Gov. Jim Hodges and U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham more time to negotiate terms for the shipments.
The order set a schedule for motions and replies to be filed in Hodges' lawsuit against Abraham, with the motions to be heard by the court on June 13.
"The parties agree that the above briefing dates and hearing date will provide this Court with the best opportunity both to carefully consider the important national local issues implicated in this case and adjudicate all relevant motions expeditiously and thoroughly. Therefore, based on the Court's approval of the above dates, Defendants agree that they will not begin shipping, before June 15, 2002, the surplus plutonium described in the Department of Energy's Amended Record of Decision dated April 19, 2002," the court order signed by Currie says.
Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said, "Since the governor has elected to throw this matter into litigation, DOE believes the best way to avoid undue delay in shipments is an expedited briefing schedule that will nevertheless allow the court to make an informed decision on the merits of matter."
The order, agreed to by both parties, came at the end of a day of charges and counter-charges of bad faith and broken promises.
U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado filed a bill in the U.S. Senate seeking to close the Savannah River Site if South Carolina continues to block the shipments.
U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-South Carolina, said Hodges' lawsuit jeopardizes all the jobs at the Savannah River Site.
"It is now apparent that my concerns were well founded," Thurmond said in a statement issued by his office.
And U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham declared dead any efforts to win Congressional guarantees to protect South Carolina from becoming a permanent plutonium storage site so long as the issue is before a federal court.
Graham said he continues to believe adequate protection of South Carolina's interests can only come from Congress.
The 3rd District Republican also questioned Hodges' commitment to a planned $3.8 billion mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel plant at the Savannah Rive Site in light of the Democratic governor's television advertising campaign that ends with the words "No plutonium in South Carolina."
"If the governor no longer supports the MOX mission, I need to know it," said Graham.
The Seneca Republican has been trying to broker a Congressional guarantee, with penalties and fines, to ensure that South Carolina is not the final resting place for surplus weapons-grade plutonium.
Hodges said late Thursday that he continues to support the MOX mission at SRS, which stands to gain 500 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs if the U.S. Department of Energy proceeds with plans to turn weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel.
Hodges said the point of his television ads and his lawsuit is to ensure that South Carolina is not left holding the plutonium permanently should the MOX project fail.
"The television ad makes the point that until we have agreement, we don't want plutonium in South Carolina. My position has not changed," Hodges said.
Hodges said Graham's proposal for $1 million-per-day fines up to $100 million a year "did not have enough teeth in it to protect South Carolina."
"I've made clear the things I think need to be added to make it take effect," Hodges said.
Graham expressed relief that Hodges had not backed away from the MOX plan.
"It's very encouraging that we are all on the same sheet of music. The MOX program is beneficial to the state and the nation, but we must have guarantees that if it fails we will not be the storage site for the plutonium. That goal is best achieved in the legislative arena," Graham said.
Meanwhile, frustrated with delays in getting the radioactive waste out of his state, Allard, a Colorado Republican, wants to move the investment and jobs to another state if South Carolina continues to block shipments of plutonium from a former weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado, to SRS.
Allard's bill also would close SRS, and transfer all current and proposed national security activities from SRS to other Energy Department facilities in other states.
"The governor of South Carolina has convinced me through his words and actions that his state is no longer interested in having the MOX facility at Savannah River," Allard said in a statement issued by his office.
Allard said Hodges' decision to file a federal lawsuit was "the last straw."
In the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Rep. John Spratt said Republicans on the House Rules Committee blocked his effort to restore $10 million to the MOX fuel program, "a program essential to moving plutonium shipped to South Carolina back out of the state."
Spratt's effort to restore $10 million to the program was in the form of an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill, which the House was debating Thursday. The amendment would have restored funding to a disposal program, a U.S. responsibility under a treaty with Russia, he said.
The Energy Department cannot execute the U.S. program without the Russian counterpart moving forward, because the agreement requires that the work be done in tandem, Spratt said.
"The President and the National Nuclear Security Agency asked for $98 million for the Russian effort next year," said Spratt, "but Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee cut that request by more than 10 percent."
"This action undercuts the MOX program, and is precisely the sort of uncertainty surrounding this program that has prompted Gov. Hodges to demand enforceable assurances against program failure," Spratt said.