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Plutonium Will Be Sent to S.C.

Court: Governor's suit to halt nuclear shipments is dismissed. He says he'll try to block transfers.

June 14, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AIKEN, S.C. — A federal judge Thursday threw out South Carolina's lawsuit to halt a massive plutonium shipment, clearing the path for 34 tons of radioactive material to begin arriving here as early as next week despite intense local resistance.

Gov. Jim Hodges repeatedly has threatened "to do whatever it takes" to stop the shipment. He has even vowed to lie down in the road if necessary.

On Thursday, Hodges took a less dramatic tack, stressing he would pursue all available "legal means," starting with an appeal of the judge's decision.

"This is bad for the people of South Carolina, very bad," he said. "We'll go all the way to the Supreme Court if that's what it takes."

When asked whether he still plans to stage a roadblock as a last resort, the governor abruptly called an end to his news conference and drove off.

A few hours later, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham issued a statement saying "the department intends to proceed with those shipments."

Abraham didn't provide a date--that's classified, his spokesman said. But energy officials had set Saturday as the earliest they could start moving plutonium from the Rocky Flats nuclear facility near Denver, where much of it is stored.

"We're working under the assumption there won't be a blockade," Energy spokesman Joe Davis said.

Thursday's developments were the latest volleys in the clash over the fate of the nation's stockpile of weapon-grade plutonium: 34 tons; enough for 5,000 nuclear bombs.

The dispute has pitted the Energy Department against South Carolina, home to the Savannah River Site nuclear facility, 200 miles east of Atlanta, where energy officials intend to recycle surplus plutonium into nuclear power plant fuel. The recycling is part of an arms control agreement with Russia.

Hodges has said he doesn't trust the federal government to follow through on its plan to build a pioneering recycling facility. Despite assurances from Abraham, Hodges worries that the dangerous material, coveted by terrorists, will be abandoned at the Savannah River Site. He has accused Energy officials of favoring Rocky Flats to help reelect Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.). Energy officials have denied these claims.

On Thursday, Hodges, a Democrat who also is up for reelection this fall, asked U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie to delay shipments until the Energy Department further studies the matter. In his motion for an injunction, he accused the department of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to file supplemental environmental reports after plans changed about how to store the plutonium.

"Even though we're the repository, we can't tell the government what to do--we wish we could, but we can't," said Hodges' attorney Bill Want. "All we can ask is that they do some serious environmental reviews before jumping into this."

Energy Department lawyers responded that all environmental and safety issues had been analyzed. They pointed to a series of studies going back to 1996.

Currie agreed and not only dismissed Hodges' bid for an injunction but also granted summary judgment, throwing the case out.

"There were detailed studies," she said, "and the courts have consistently ruled that federal courts must defer to the judgment of the agencies." But Currie did not go so far as to grant the department's request to preemptively stop Hodges from staging a roadblock.

"I don't want to presume the governor will break the law."

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