South Carolina troopers find no plutonium -- yet

Sunday, June 16, 2002

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- State troopers ordered to stop traffic outside the Savannah River Site didn't find any plutonium destined for the former nuclear weapons complex.

But that could change next weekend, when the U.S. Department of Energy says it can start shipping the material to the site near Aiken.

One day after Gov. Jim Hodges' request to block the shipments from the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado was denied in federal court, the governor read a statement Friday declaring a state of emergency and sent troopers to block roads near the site.

Hodges ordered state police to prevent anyone transporting plutonium into South Carolina starting Friday, even though the Energy Department said it couldn't start shipping the weapons-grade plutonium until June 22 because of logistical problems.

The Energy Department wants to move 6 1/2 tons of plutonium to South Carolina as part of its ongoing effort to close down the Rocky Flats site. The radioactive material would be converted into fuel for nuclear reactors, then shipped out of the state.

But Hodges worries the program will never be funded and plutonium will never leave South Carolina.

"I am pleased to learn that the Department of Energy will not begin plutonium shipments until June 22," Hodges said. "Fundamentally, however, little has changed. The plutonium still presents a threat to our state, and my executive order stands."

Sid Gaulden, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said troopers were sent to New Ellenton to begin checking vehicles entering the Savannah River Site.

Gaulden admits there aren't enough troopers to block every entry point into the state. The Highway Patrol has been ordered to pay closer attention to the state line, but no extra troopers have been assigned to watch the borders.

Along with declaring the emergency Friday, Hodges also appealed to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. He wants the judges to overturn a Thursday ruling that allowed the shipments to begin as scheduled.

While U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie dismissed Hodges' suit, she refused an Energy Department request to declare the road blocks illegal.

"We will follow any court order regarding the shipment of this plutonium," Hodges said. "But until ordered otherwise, I will continue to exercise any and every lawful power I possess to keep the plutonium from threatening the safety of our citizens."

Vice President Dick Cheney, in South Carolina on Friday for a fund-raiser, said the fuel-conversion program is important to ensure that plutonium "never falls into the wrong hands."

"This administration is totally committed to helping pass legislation to guarantee that South Carolina does not become a permanent storage site for plutonium," Cheney said.

Federal officials have said the nuclear material would be under constant guard, and its path and time of arrival would be kept secret. They also say security at the Savannah River Site is sound.

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