- WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Energy dispatched a team of experts to Rocky Flats on Thursday to find ways to keep the former nuclear bomb factory on track for closure in 2006, after it agreed to delay shipments of plutonium from the facility until at least June 15.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham had said that shipments to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina had to begin by May 15 to meet the 2006 deadline. But now officials say that the shipping date might be flexible.

DOE wanted to give a federal judge time to hear arguments in a lawsuit filed by South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges seeking to block the shipments. A hearing has been set for June 13 in South Carolina.

The federal government is spending $7 billion to decontaminate Rocky Flats and turn it into a wildlife refuge. That means moving 6 tons of weapons-grade plutonium from the plant in northeast Jefferson County to the Savannah River site, where a $3.8 billion "MOX," or mixed oxide, fuel facility is to be built to recycle it into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

The DOE team was sent at the request of Gov. Bill Owens and U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, both Republicans, who said they're worried that Hodges' opposition could push closure past 2006.

Democrat Hodges and the Bush administration have been in a standoff for weeks because the governor says DOE hasn't provided sufficient guarantees that the MOX plant will be built. Cancellation of the plant would leave South Carolina as "the nation's nuclear dumping ground," Hodges said. In addition to filing suit, he's threatened to lay down in the road or send out the state highway patrol to stop the shipments.

Allard filed a bill Thursday that would punish South Carolina for Hodges' resistance. He wants to order DOE to move the MOX plant, costing the state 1,300 jobs, and to look into shutting down the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant. The plant already employs 15,000 people.

"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.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., is well-known for working to bring projects to his home state and keep them there. But he made no pledge to fight to keep Savannah River open.

"I was concerned that the recent filing of a federal lawsuit by the governor could jeopardize current and future jobs at the Savannah River site. It is now apparent that my concerns were well founded," Thurmond said in a statement.

Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who has quietly backed Hodges, didn't return calls.

Political experts questioned whether Allard, as a freshman senator in the minority party, has the power to prevail over Thurmond and Hollings - two of the most senior members of the Senate.

"It comes down to a question of which state's senators have more power, and if this was a contest we'd have to stop it after one round," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia. "Colorado would lose."

Sabato said he believes that Thurmond failed to immediately oppose the bill because he is "letting Allard score some rhetorical points" because of his re-election challenge in Colorado this year.