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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 66, September 2002

News Review

South Carolina Fights Losing battle over Plutonium Shipments

The period under review saw an intensification of the bitter dispute between South Carolina and federal US authorities over the proposed import of large quantities of plutonium into the state for reprocessing into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel at a $3.8 billion facility planned for construction at the Savannah River complex. The Energy Department plans to transfer 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium from its inoperative nuclear weapons production plant in Rocky Flats, Colorado, to Savannah River - 160 miles away - for conversion into the commercially-usable fuel. The scheme was drawn up following a September 2000 US-Russia agreement under which each side agreed to dispose of an equal amount of surplus plutonium. However, according to South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges (Democrat), undertakings given by President Clinton - that the new reprocessing facility would be completed, and that all imported plutonium would leave the state in due course, regardless of commercial demand - have been rescinded by the Bush administration. Hodges has thus declared his complete opposition to the scheme, and his preparedness to use all political and legal means to block the transfers. Meanwhile, environmentalist and non-proliferation groups are voicing strong opposition to the plan regardless of any conditions attached, viewing the transportation of the material as hazardous and its recycling as imprudent. See Disarmament Diplomacy No. 64 (May/June 2002), pp. 49-51, for further details and background.

The outcome of a blizzard of legal activity has been strongly in Washington's favour. On May 15, the Energy Department announced it was ready to begin shipments from Rocky Flats; Hodges immediately lodged an appeal with the US District Court in Columbia, South Carolina. On June 12, judge Cameron Currie ruled against the governor. Fearing an imminent transfer, Hodges declared a state of emergency, ordering state troopers to inspect incoming trucks for plutonium. On June 13, Judge Currie ruled Hodges' order illegal, reasoning "the harm that a blockade of plutonium shipments might present is obvious". Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham expressed his Department "very pleased with the court's ruling, which protects our national security as well as the people of South Carolina." Abraham continued: "The court's decision should help assure progress on the MOX program, which is vitally important to America's national security as well as the securing of nuclear materials in Russia. As part of our international agreement with Russia, DOE plans to fabricate surplus plutonium it ships into South Carolina into MOX fuel for nuclear reactors. Further, DOE intends that all of the plutonium coming into South Carolina will have a pathway out of the state."

Hodges appealed Currie's June 13 ruling to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, arguing (June 18) that "plutonium threatens the health and safety of South Carolina's citizens. As governor, I must do everything in my legal power to protect our state from this threat."

On August 6, the 4th Circuit Court rejected the state's case, again clearing the decks for the first shipment, said to total 6.5 metric tons. In their ruling, the three appeals judges noted: "We are satisfied that the DOE took a 'hard look' at the environmental consequences of its proposed course of action". Prior to the verdict, however, Hodges had made plain his intent to pursue the matter if necessary to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court. Notwithstanding the threat of further legal action, an Energy Department statement (August 6) expressed great relief at the Circuit Court ruling: "We are pleased that the court affirmed the lower court's ruling today which said that DOE's decision-making and actions on this matter complied with the law. This administration is committed to ensuring America's national security and the security of the people of South Carolina are maintained by proceeding with a program to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium in a safe and responsible manner. As for further legal action, it would be inappropriate for us to speculate on what action the Supreme Court may or may not take on this issue". Hodges reacted defiantly: "The weapons-grade plutonium is a threat to the health and safety of our state. Our final hope lies with the Supreme Court. ... I spent the last four years trying to end South Carolina's role as the nation's nuclear dumping ground and I don't want us to go back".

On August 2, it was reported that Colorado Senator Wayne Allard (Republican) had been informed by DOE officials that the first plutonium shipments had begun; the Department refused all comment.

Reports: DOE statement on South Carolina court ruling, US Department of Energy Press Release PR-02-105, June 13; Court dismisses lawsuit to block plutonium shipments, Global Security Newswire, June 14; S.C. plutonium ban could be dangerous, Associated Press, June 16; Ruling sought in plutonium dispute, Associated Press, June 17; Judge asked to keep plutonium moving, Associated Press, June 18; No legal obstacles to S.C. shipments, Associated Press, June 22; DOE statement on 4th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision affirming Federal District Court's ruling on South Carolina plutonium case, US Department of Energy Press Release PRN-02-073, August 6; Federal court upholds ruling on plutonium shipments, Reuters, August 6; Appeals court affirms ruling allowing plutonium shipments to South Carolina, Associated Press, August 6.

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