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Taking Action: Governor Threatens to Bar U.S. Plutonium Shipments
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<-- Return To 21st Century Warfare

Source: Common Dreams

Published on Saturday, August 11, 2001 in the New York Times

Taking Action: Governor Threatens to Bar U.S. Plutonium Shipments

by David Firestone

ATLANTA, Aug. 10 Charging that a large shipment of plutonium from nuclear weapons may be on its way to permanent storage in his state rather than to the temporary stay needed for processing, Gov. Jim Hodges has ordered the South Carolina Highway Patrol to draw up plans for blocking the state's borders to federal trucks bearing it.

Mr. Hodges says the Bush administration has reneged on a plan worked out by the Clinton administration to move the plutonium out of the Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C., after it is converted to power- plant fuel or encased in glass. Without a guarantee that the radioactive material will eventually be moved out of the state, he said in an interview today, he will "do whatever it takes" to keep it from coming in.

"I'll stand squarely in front of the trucks, if that's what it takes to protect the health and safety of our people," he said. "In the meantime, we've got a range of options, including roadblocks. We are not going to be stuck with permanent storage of plutonium in our state."

In a memorandum released by his office, Mr. Hodges ordered B. Boykin Rose, the state's public safety director, to evaluate options for highway roadblocks, a step that recalls Gov. Cecil D. Andrus's use of the Idaho state police in 1988 to block shipments of nuclear waste from the Navy to a processing plant in his state. Mr. Hodges said a federal lawsuit was another option being considered.

The Energy Department, which operates the Savannah River Site, a nuclear processing and disposal complex, said it hoped to continue discussing the issue with South Carolina officials to prevent confrontations at the border. Joe Davis, a spokesman for the department, said Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham promised on a visit to the complex this week that the plutonium would not be permanently stored in South Carolina.

"We're committed to making sure that the materials that come into the state leave the state," Mr. Davis quoted Mr. Abraham as saying.

But Mr. Hodges said that he was not satisfied with vague assurances and that he had not been given a detailed plan on how the waste will be removed. If the government moves to South Carolina all the plutonium that requires processing, he said, it will leave the state isolated, because no other state will want the material back.

"We will be left holding the proverbial bag," the governor wrote in his memorandum.

The two sides cannot even agree on when the first shipment of more than 50 tons of plutonium, from Rocky Flats, the shuttered Colorado nuclear weapons complex, will enter South Carolina on its way to the Savannah River Site, about 20 miles downstream from Augusta, Ga. Mr. Hodges said he believed that the trucks would begin coming in two weeks, but Mr. Davis said there would be no shipments until this fall.

The plutonium at issue was left over from the production of nuclear weapons. In 1996, the United States and Russia agreed to take equal amounts out of their nuclear stockpiles and either convert it to fuel for nuclear power plants or encase it in radioactive glass to keep it from being stolen.

But in May, citing budget pressures, the Bush administration said it would not yet begin the expensive process of stabilizing the plutonium and encasing it in glass. Instead, officials said, waste will be stored in containers at the South Carolina complex while the issue is studied further.

That infuriated Mr. Hodges, who said the state had contributed enough to the nation's nuclear program by allowing Savannah River to manufacture plutonium and tritium gas for bombs as far back as 1952. The state has no intention of being the storage site for warhead waste, he said, suggesting that it be stored instead in a state with many remote locations, like Nevada.

The end of the cold war allowed the government to shut down the original five reactors at the 310-square- mile Savannah River complex, and now the only plutonium manufactured there is used as batteries for space probes. But the site still plays an important role in storing and processing spent fuel and other waste.

The cost of processing the plutonium has grown sharply, however, precisely at a time when the Bush administration is looking for ways to cut the budget of most agencies, including the Energy Department. A confidential report from the department, made public on Thursday by the private Nuclear Control Institute, said the cost of the 22-year plutonium disposal program that resulted from the agreement with the Russians had now risen to $6.6 billion a 50 percent increase over a 1999 estimate.

Mr. Hodges, a Democrat, said politics did not play a role in his stand, and added that he did not believe his state was being made a target for waste because he is a Democrat at a time when Republicans are in the White House. This afternoon, in fact, one of his most bitter political enemies, State Attorney General Charlie Condon, a Republican, issued a strong statement of support for his position, pledging to work with him to keep the government from forcing the state to accept nuclear waste.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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