Judge denies S.C. governor's request to block plutonium

Thursday, June 13, 2002

Associated Press WriterAIKEN, S.C. (AP) -- A federal judge Thursday denied South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges' request to block shipments of weapons-grade plutonium, which could begin as early as this weekend.

Hodges has threatened to use state troopers to block roads leading into the Savannah River Site, a former nuclear weapons complex, and has even said he would lie down in the road to stop plutonium-laden transport trucks.

Hodges' attorney William Want said the governor would file an appeal immediately with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia.

"If we're unsuccessful in Richmond, then we'll be on to Washington," the governor said.

The U.S. Department of Energy intends to begin shipping the weapons-grade plutonium as early as Saturday from its Rocky Flats installation in Colorado to the Savannah River Site, where it would be converted into nuclear reactor fuel over the next two decades.

But Hodges sued, fearing the government will fail to find the money to convert the plutonium and may end up just leaving it at Savannah River.

"We don't know the most basic thing about what they're planning to do," Want told U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie.

Want argued that the Energy Department failed to complete environmental impact statements and backed out of a promise that the plutonium would be stored in the state only temporarily.

"If this case gets by you," Want told the judge, "they are home free with a long-term storage facility."

However, Currie said in his ruling that Hodges didn't provide enough proof of violations to stop the plutonium for being shipped.

Hodges, a Democrat up for re-election, had wanted Currie to stop the shipments until environmental studies are done, a process that could take years.

Hodges also wanted a binding agreement with the Energy Department, including a timetable on when the plutonium must leave whether it is processed or not.

Energy Department lawyer Robert Daly told the judge there's no harm in shipping the material to SRS then deciding later how to dispose of it.

"It doesn't matter if there's a clear exit strategy for 10 years," Daly said.

Six metric tons of plutonium were to be shipped from Colorado to SRS. An Energy employee from Rocky Flats told the judge Thursday that 600 cans of the material are ready for transport.

The governor has been running commercials telling residents to call the Energy Department and stop the shipments. He also says transporting the plutonium the 1,500 miles from Colorado to South Carolina poses an unnecessary security risk.

Federal officials say the nuclear material will be under constant guard, and its exact path and time of arrival will be kept secret.

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