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Not In My State: Debating the Fate of Nuclear Waste in South Carolina

June 4, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: There are six tons of weapons grade plutonium inside the Rocky Flats plants 13 miles north of Denver. The Department of Energy has been dismantling the former bomb factory for years and wants to close it entirely by 2006, turn the land into a wildlife refuge.

But it can’t close until the plutonium is removed. DOE wants to send the Rocky Flats plutonium, and eventually 28 additional tons from other former weapons plants across the country, to its Savannah River site near Aiken, South Carolina.

About half the plutonium the U.S. created during the Cold War was made in reactors here. The agency wants to build a multi-billion dollar reprocessing plant on this site to turn the plutonium into MOX, or mixed oxide fuel, for nuclear power reactors. It would eventually be burned to produce electricity. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says this is all part of an agreement with Russia to turn weapons grade plutonium into useful fuel.

SPENCER ABRAHAM, Secretary of Energy: These programs with Russia are vital to the nonproliferation goals both that we have, Russia has, and the world has. And if this material isn’t disposed of here in the United States and on a parallel track in Russia, it poses a very serious risk.

TOM BEARDEN: But South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges doesn’t believe a word of it.

GOV. JIM HODGES: Oh, it is a bogus argument. I don’t think there’s any question about that. When you look at what they have proposed, they have proposed moving surplus plutonium from Colorado to South Carolina, thousands of miles, just to sit for three or four years.

If national security is at stake, why are they moving plutonium thousands of miles just to sit? It’s not like it’s moving here to be processed. I mean, the MOX construction project will take several years. I mean, it’s hard to fathom that there’s any national security issue at risk here.

TOM BEARDEN: Hodges says his real concern is that DOE will bring the plutonium here, and then never build the reprocessing plant, leaving South Carolina holding the bag.

GOV. JIM HODGES: In fact, what they orally tell us that they’re willing to do is always substantially different than what we see on paper. We heard about two weeks ago that the federal government was willing to enter into an agreement that would… that would end up… that would end up processing all the plutonium by the year 2020 or so. Well, when the written form of that came, it actually could be extended to 2040 or 2050.

TOM BEARDEN: Hodges asserts further proof of DOE’s unreliability, saying the agency originally planned to “immobilize” some of the plutonium in glass for permanent storage, but abandoned that part of the plan.

GOV. JIM HODGES: Some 18 months ago, the Department of Energy entered into a formal agreement with our state where they said, “Here’s what we’re going to do with plutonium, here’s how we’re going to treat it, and here’s what we’re going to invest to get this process done.”

And then, within the matter of a year, or a year and a half, the Department of Energy was then saying, “Sorry, this agreement that we entered into is no longer valid. We have changed our mind.”

TOM BEARDEN: DOE says they decided to drop immobilization in order to save taxpayer dollars.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: We always intended to have approximately two-thirds of the plutonium converted into MOX fuel. Now we’re going further. And the approach we’ve taken actually saves the taxpayers $2 billion while accomplishing the same final product of immobilizing… of putting… of disposing of, of reducing from weapons grade quality the plutonium.

So it’s consistent with the Russian program now, it’s more affordable, and it’s more workable. And the fact that the program’s been slightly modified should in no way, in my judgment, change the idea of us going forward with it.

TOM BEARDEN: Hodges’ response to all this was to stage a roadblock drill; have the highway patrol practice stopping trucks at the state line.

GOV. JIM HODGES: Well, they’re our roads, and they’re our highways. And I think the authority that I have as governor of the state, it’s my obligation to protect the health and safety of people that live here in South Carolina.

TOM BEARDEN: The governor said he was prepared to block any plutonium shipments, even if it meant laying down across the road. He also filed a lawsuit, charging DOE with violating administrative and environmental laws, and is seeking an injunction to prevent the shipments.

And recently, four private citizens in South Carolina joined the lawsuit, seeking personal monetary damages if the transfers take place. Colorado Republican Senator Wayne Allard says Governor Hodges is trying to use the issue to get re-elected this fall, particularly with his threat to block the trucks with his body.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: That’s political grandstanding, and it’s been used in the past.

TOM BEARDEN: As proof, Allard points to the governor’s TV commercial on the issue, an ad the DOE urged the governor to pull.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Governor Jim Hodges is demanding that the federal government keep its word; that they not make our state into a permanent dumping ground for weapons-grade plutonium.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: They’re still issuing threats time and time again. I would really appreciate it if, and I think the country would appreciate it, it would be best for this country, that he would sit down and say, “look, let’s negotiate. Let’s see what’s best.” I think we’ve reached that point. I’m waiting for him to say “yes” just once.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: To Wayne Allard, our greatest duty is our national security.

TOM BEARDEN: But Democrat Hodges says Allard is playing politics, too. He says the bush administration, hoping to regain control of the Senate, is prepared to give the Colorado Senator whatever he wants to get reelected, including getting the plutonium out of his state so he could take credit. Blease Graham is a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. He says the governor has found an issue that has legs.

BLEASE GRAHAM, University of South Carolina: I think it resonates in South Carolinians who are by tradition suspicious of external influences. They want a governor or a political leaders, generally, who fight for their interests, who’s not being steamrolled by Washington, some outside establishment.

TOM BEARDEN: But Secretary Abraham says that far from steamrolling South Carolina, the administration has gone out of its way to try to reach a compromise.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: We have taken a variety of steps to try to provide assurances, from having first delayed shipments so we could put together a plan of action that would show him exactly how and provide budget support for the disposition of this material– we did that.

He said he wanted a written agreement; we’ve sent him a written agreement. He said he wanted it to be more enforceable; we reconfigured it to make it so. He said that wasn’t good enough, he wanted legislation. We’ve worked for days to try to write a bill that now, in fact, on a bipartisan basis passed the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he says that’s not good enough.

TOM BEARDEN: The Sierra Club may symbolize the struggle many factions are having with the issue. They don’t want the plutonium recycled, but they don’t want it stored here, either.

DELL ISHAM, South Carolina Sierra Club: We do not want to become the permanent waste dump of the world.

TOM BEARDEN: Dell Isham is the chapter director for the South Carolina Sierra Club. He believes that turning weapons grade plutonium into reactor fuel is too dangerous, and prefers immobilization, encasing the plutonium in glass.

DELL ISHAM: The immobilization process is the best of a lot of bad options, but it’s the one that is not supported by the bush administration and not funded by Congress.

TOM BEARDEN: If it were immobilized, where would it go?

DELL ISHAM: Well, that is A… is a big question, and, of course, the question currently on everybody’s minds also is not just the Savannah River site, but also Yucca Mountain.

TOM BEARDEN: Yucca Mountain is the Department of Energy’s proposed high level nuclear waste storage area 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The agency has been testing the geology there for decades, trying to determine if it can safely store plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel for thousands of years.

SPOKESMAN: We have a multi-billion dollar hole in the ground, probably the most expensive hole in the ground in the history of human beings, that has been established by Congress for this purpose.

TOM BEARDEN: The Sierra Club has taken a position to be opposed to the use of Yucca Mountain for scientific and geologic reasons, and the Sierra Club in South Carolina, of course, doesn’t want permanent storage here.

But if you had to choose from a really undeveloped, inappropriate site and one that had been developed for that purpose, again, you’re looking at two bad options.

MAL McKIBBEN, Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness: You can’t have it both ways. I mean, if the people there are saying, “we ought to send it… we ought to make glass out of it and send it to Yucca Mountain,” but the same people are saying, “I don’t want Yucca Mountain to open,” it’s… that is illogical.

TOM BEARDEN: Mal McKibben is the executive director of a nonprofit group called Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness. He says immobilization creates its own risks.

MAL McKIBBEN: It is still weapons grade plutonium, and what you have done is put enough plutonium in a mine, in the ground, to make many thousands of weapons. So you’ve created a plutonium mine for the future.

TOM BEARDEN: McKibben’s group, based in Aiken, supports the MOX plan. They believe the town’s economy world flourish because the government would spend billions of dollars in construction funds and create hundreds of high paying jobs here. But Allard says the state ought to lose those jobs if the governor continues to delay.

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: You know, there was the competitive bid for handling the plutonium. Other states wanted the project. And his state came forward, they bid for the project, they won it. And now it’s an election year and he’s playing the game. But this is not anything new to me.

TOM BEARDEN: Governor Hodges says he still wants those jobs. He says he’ll accept the plutonium if DOE will agree to a court-supervised settlement.

GOV. JIM HODGES: We ought to go down to the… to the courthouse and enter into a consent order, so that if they a year from now or five years from now change their mind, that we have a federal judge who can say, “Wait a minute. You’re not going to be allowed to do that.”

TOM BEARDEN: Secretary Abraham says that’s not going to happen.

SPENCER ABRAHAM: Once you enter into one of those types of an agreements, then other parties, third-party interveners, from who knows what perspective, including the perspective of people who don’t like our agreement with Russia, could enter into the case, seek to intervene, and seek to, in some way, influence these programs.

In short, we would be trying to put a major international agreement into place against the backdrop of having a variety of third parties having access to tamper with that agreement and try to change it at all times.

TOM BEARDEN: In the meantime, Allard, and Democratic Representative Mark Udall, also of Colorado, turned up the heat last month when they proposed legislation that would fine DOE if it does not remove all the plutonium from Rocky Flats by November 2003. The Energy Department has agreed to delay the first plutonium shipments until after a federal court hears arguments in the governor’s lawsuit on June 13.