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A Nuclear Confrontation Shapes Up

THE NATION

Energy: South Carolina governor vows to stop the U.S. from shipping bomb-grade plutonium to the Savannah River Site for disposal.

June 02, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AIKEN, S.C. — Imagine 12,000 pounds of bomb-grade plutonium, some of the most dangerous stuff on Earth, barreling down Interstate 20 in heavily fortified trucks.

Dozens of state troopers stand in the way, their squad cars barricading the highway.

The governor of South Carolina lies in the road, in his signature seersucker suit, daring the feds to cross the state line.

It's an absurd scenario. But it could come down to that.

At a time when FBI officials are warning of imminent terrorist threats, the Department of Energy is planning the largest shipment of plutonium ever, to a nuclear facility outside Aiken. And Gov. Jim Hodges has vowed to keep it out--even if it takes a roadblock. He has sued the Energy Department, ridiculed the federal government in TV commercials and mobilized state troopers. The shipments, destined for the Savannah River Site, a sprawling nuclear complex on the Georgia line, are supposed to begin later this month.

"I've certainly made some dramatic gestures," Hodges said in an interview last week. "But disposing nuclear weapons, well, that's a dramatic problem."

Hanging in the balance is enough bomb-making material to produce at least 5,000 nuclear weapons, an arsenal larger than any country's except for Russia and the United States.

Under arms control agreements with Russia, U.S. government officials have promised to decommission 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium. Energy officials have said the plutonium will be promptly converted into fuel for nuclear power plants, a safer and more stable form.

Hodges doesn't trust them.

The Democratic governor, who believes the Bush administration is trying to torpedo him politically, said he will allow the plutonium into the state if the Department of Energy commits in a formal consent degree to recycling the bomb material--something that has never been done before--or removing it should that not happen.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has promised not to abandon the highly radioactive matter in South Carolina. He even put his pledge in a letter. But Abraham has refused to enter into a court-monitored consent decree, saying national security issues don't belong in front of a judge.

Then there's the Colorado connection.

Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican running for reelection this year, is pushing the Bush administration to get surplus plutonium out of his state--it's stored at the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site near Denver. The cleanup of the aging weapon plant is a key part of Allard's campaign platform. Allard insists, along with energy officials, that much money will be saved by moving plutonium from Colorado to South Carolina.

But some folks in South Carolina don't buy that. They say the Bush administration is sacrificing the interests of their state, a reliable Republican stronghold, to make friends and win votes in Colorado, historically more of a swing state.

"This isn't about national security, the Russians or what's good for our country," said Dell Isham, executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's about politics."

Allard called that "ridiculous."

"I wasn't the one who dreamed up this issue right before the election. He did," Allard said, referring to Hodges--who's also up for reelection in the fall. "If all the states began to follow his example, our country would have serious problems." (Earlier this spring, Allard's press secretary was quoted in the Denver press as calling Hodges "Elmer Fudd.") The issue goes back to 1997, when energy officials began looking for ways to dispose of surplus plutonium. With the Cold War over and the U.S. nuclear arsenal shrinking, there was no need for all the plutonium triggers, or "pits," that lie at the heart of thermonuclear weapons. Many of these grapefruit-sized pits, which are small atomic bombs that trigger much bigger thermonuclear explosions, were manufactured at Rocky Flats. They're so dangerous to handle that one whiff results in a 100% probability of cancer, scientists say. They're also coveted by terrorists--and guarded very tightly.

Under pressure from arms control advocates, American and Russian officials agreed in September 2000 to dispose of 34 tons each of pits, plutonium shavings and other bomb-making nuclear material.

The U.S. side of the project is estimated to cost $3.8 billion over 20 years and create 1,300 jobs. Energy officials chose South Carolina's Savannah River Site because of its technical expertise and secure facilities. For years, its five reactors produced volumes of plutonium and tritium, another bomb material; now the 310-square-mile facility specializes in processing radioactive waste.

Yet the bomb-to-fuel project is new science. France, England, Germany and India burn similar nuclear fuel, but nowhere is there a large-scale process to convert weapon-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants.

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