Plutonium Could Travel to South Carolina Next
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, April 17, 2002 (ENS) - Several tons of
plutonium could begin arriving in South Carolina in less than 30
days, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said Monday. Abraham notified
South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges that he intends to begin shipping
the plutonium from the agency's Rocky Flats facility in Colorado,
despite the governor's threats to block the shipments.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham at his desk (Photo
courtesy Office of the Secretary)In a letter to Hodges,
Abraham called it "essential" that the shipments begin by May 15 to
meet a federally mandated schedule for closing Rocky Flats by 2006.
"The department intends to begin shipping plutonium from Rocky
Flats to Savannah River no sooner than 30 days from today," Abraham
wrote Monday. "It is essential that we begin shipments of materials
from Rocky Flats to South Carolina by approximately May 15, 2002 in
order to meet the nation's goal of closing the facility."
The DOE plans to ship a total of 34 metric tons of plutonium from
various DOE weapons facilities around the nation to the Savannah
River Site, where it will be turned into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for
commercial nuclear power reactors.
The plutonium, pure enough to be used in nuclear weapons, is now
located at Rocky Flats, at the Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory in California, and at the PANTEX Facility in Amarillo,
Texas. About 76 trailer loads of plutonium are expected to be
shipped from Rocky Flats alone.
After receiving Abraham's letter, Governor Hodges again pledged
to block the shipments until he receives assurances that the
plutonium will not be stored in South Carolina after it is
processed. Hodges has previously threatened to use state troopers to
physically block the shipments from entering the state.
Governor Jim Hodges of South Carolina (Photo courtesy
Office of the Governor)"Until there is a legally
enforceable agreement that holds the federal government to its word,
I will do everything at my disposal to ensure that plutonium does
not enter South Carolina," Hodges said. "The federal government is
asking us to take them at their word. Given their track record,
that's just not good enough."
South Carolina Representatives Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and
John Spratt, a Democrat, are drafting legislation that would require
that the plutonium not be permanently store in the state. However,
Hodges said Monday that it is unlikely that the bill can be passed
by Congress before the DOE begins its shipments.
"While I am open to a congressional solution, the secretary's
decision to limit the time frame to 30 days will make this very
difficult to accomplish," Hodges said.
In Monday's letter, Abraham detailed a list of concessions that
he hoped would persuade Hodges not to oppose the shipments,
including a formal commitment to ship the plutonium out of South
Carolina if the facility that will convert the plutonium into MOX
fuel is not completed on schedule. Abraham said he would support
efforts to pass legislation backing that pledge, and would suspend
shipments to South Carolina if Congress has not passed such a bill
Last week, Hodges told the DOE that he wanted a federal judge to
oversee the enforcement of whatever agreement was reached between
the state and the federal government regarding the plutonium
shipments. Abraham rejected that request, saying such a court decree
would be of "dubious legality and propriety."
Representative Lindsey Graham is one of two South Carolina
Congress members working on a legislative solution to the plutonium
controversy. (Photo courtesy Office of the
Representative)"It would be wholly irresponsible for
the country to attempt to conduct its national security and foreign
policy affairs through the judicial process, but that is what we
effectively would be committing ourselves to doing," by seeking a
solution to the plutonium controversy in the courts, Abraham wrote.
"The courts are an appropriate forum for handling lawsuits, not
for performing such Executive Branch duties as overseeing and
implementing the U.S.-Russian nuclear non-proliferation agreement,"
In January 2002, the Bush administration announced it would
dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium by turning it into
MOX fuel, as part of a join U.S.-Russian program to eliminate
surplus nuclear weapons materials. The decision overturned a
proposal by the previous administration to use a portion of the
plutonium as fuel, while permanently immobilizing the remainder in
glass to prevent its potential use in nuclear weapons.
MOX fuel is a mixture of about three percent plutonium oxide with
about 97 percent uranium oxide, which can be used in nuclear
reactors to produce electricity. Such fuel is routinely used for
power generation in Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland.
Critics of the MOX fuel proposal charge that burning MOX in
nuclear reactors increases the public health risks from nuclear
accidents, particularly when the reactors were not originally
designed to burn MOX fuel.
Sunset at the Savannah River Site (Photo courtesy
DOE)The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a Washington
DC based nonproliferation group, released a study in 1999 which
concluded that using MOX fuel in a nuclear power plant raises the
cancer risks associated with containment failure or core meltdown
accidents at such plants.
More deaths would result because the quantities of plutonium and
other highly radiotoxic elements in the cores of MOX fueled plants
are greater than in plants fueled only with conventional low
enriched uranium, the NCI study says.
The Energy Department plans to construct two major facilities at
the Savannah River Site to process the surplus plutonium: the
nation's first MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (FFF), to be in
operation by July 2007, and a Pit Disassembly and Conversion
Facility, to be in operation by October 2009. Pits are the
radioactive materials and other classified components at the core of
But the DOE's MOX program has been plagued by escalating costs,
legal challenges and delays. In February, Duke Power, the utility
selected to use the MOX fuel in its McGuire and Catawba reactors,
testified before a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) proceeding
that "the future use of MOX fuel at McGuire and Catawba reactors is
not a certainty. Substantial uncertainties and contingencies
continued to surround the program."
The NRC agreed in an April 12 ruling that "the mere possibility
that Duke might" in the future seek to amend its reactors' licenses
to permit MOX use is "speculative by its very nature."
The McGuire Nuclear Power Plant in Mecklenburg County, North
Carolina is one of two that could be converted to burn MOX fuel
(Photo courtesy NRC)"Duke Power testified under
oath that its plans to use MOX fuel are speculative and highly
uncertain, and NRC's ruling agreed with them," noted Dr. Edwin
Lyman, scientific director and incoming president of NCI. "How,
then, can Secretary Abraham credibly promise South Carolina that
this plutonium will not remain indefinitely at Savannah River?"
An "unknown but substantial amount" of the Rocky Flats plutonium
is now considered by DOE to be unsuitable for use in MOX fuel, Lyman
"In the wake of the cancellation of the immobilization program,
DOE has no plans and no appropriate technology to dispose of this
'orphan' plutonium," Lyman said. "If Secretary Abraham knows when or
if this plutonium would ultimately leave Rocky Flats and what would
be done with it, he hasn't told anyone."
"Given the Department's ill considered decision to kill off its
immobilization program - which offered the cheapest, safest and
fastest way to dispose of excess plutonium - it is highly likely
that tons of Rocky Flats plutonium will be stranded at the Savannah
River Site for years or even decades," Lyman concluded.
Jay Reiff, a spokesperson for Governor Hodges, said the governor
may consider suing the federal government to block the plutonium
shipments if legislation is not passed to offer assurances that the
plutonium will not remain in the state.
In a letter sent to Hodges on Friday, Secretary Abraham noted
that he wants to keep the controversy out of the courts to avoid
involving other parties in the dispute, including groups like NCI.
"Once this matter is in litigation, other parties will be
entitled to try to intervene and gain status to influence current
and future decisions on these issues," Abraham wrote. "Even groups
who oppose the objectives or the particulars of our
non-proliferation programs, for example those who oppose
construction of any MOX facility, could inject themselves into the
process. The result would be to turn over to the courts decisions
that are integrally related to the foreign policy of the United