COLUMBIA - S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges on
Friday ordered state troopers to prepare to block shipments of
weapons-grade plutonium from entering the state.
But if a standoff between Hodges and the U.S. Department of
Energy is going to happen, it has been delayed a week.
The shipments originally were scheduled to begin as early as
today. But a day after the Energy Department got the go-ahead from a
U.S. District Court to begin moving the plutonium to South Carolina,
the agency said it won't be geared up to send any plutonium until
Hodges on Friday issued an executive order that all shipments of
plutonium be blocked from entering the state and said the Energy
Department's delay did not change his plans.
"The plutonium still presents a threat to our state, and my
executive order stands," he said.
Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said the department still
intends to ship plutonium to the Savannah River Site near Aiken, 160
miles southwest of Charlotte. And it will ask the Justice Department
for legal help in response to Hodges' blockade.
"The court's decision allows DOE to move forward with plutonium
shipments to South Carolina from Rocky Flats, Colo., and the
department intends to proceed with those shipments," Davis said in a
As a part of a nuclear disarmament agreement with Russia, the
Energy Department plans to transform the plutonium into mixed-oxide,
or MOX, fuel to be used in Duke Power's Charlotte-area nuclear
The governor is afraid the federal government will not build the
MOX facility and instead store plutonium in South Carolina
indefinitely. He has said he wants a court-enforceable agreement
that the plutonium will be removed.
Hodges sued in May, asking for a judge to halt the shipments
while the department finished environmental studies he said were not
But U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie ruled Thursday that Hodges
was wrong and that a delay would interfere with the federal
government's plans to shut down the Rocky Flats site. Hodges sent
his appeal via overnight delivery to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals in Richmond, Va., Thursday night. A date for the appeal had
not been set as of Friday evening.
Hodges held a news conference Friday afternoon to announce his
executive order. Hodges said the shipments pose an immediate hazard
to the people of South Carolina and that gives him the authority to
declare an emergency. He said he would continue his blockade until a
court orders him not to.
"I know the folks in Washington will not like this action," he
said. "But until ordered otherwise, I will continue to exercise
every lawful power that I possess to keep plutonium from coming to
our state and threatening our citizens' safety."
Davis of the Energy Department said Hodges legally can't prevent
the department from shipping plutonium to the state. He said Currie
made that clear in her Thursday ruling.
"We are extremely disappointed the governor has chosen to totally
disregard the court's admonition," Davis said.
University of South Carolina law professor Eldon Wedlock said the
Energy Department is probably right.
"(Hodges) is just trying to get press over the fact and trying to
impress people with the gravity of the situation," Wedlock said.
The plutonium will be shipped in heavily armored
tractor-trailers, escorted by a convoy of armed guards and tracked
by satellite. Shipping routes and schedules won't be revealed to
state and local authorities.
Edwin Lyman, a physicist who heads the anti-proliferation Nuclear
Control Institute, said the plutonium oxides to be shipped from
Rocky Flats could be the makings of a radioactivity-spreading dirty
bomb or, in trained hands, a nuclear explosive.
Hodges raised this concern in his news conference. The government
announced Monday it had arrested a man suspected of being involved
in a terrorist plot to build such a dirty bomb. The man, Jose
Padilla, also known as Abdullah al Muhajir, is being housed in a
military jail in Charleston, 130 miles from SRS.
Said Lyman: "The whole thing's silly, given that the MOX facility
won't be built and ready to accept waste for another four years.
There's absolutely no reason to go ahead with these shipments when
we're in a heightened state of alert."
According to a federal study of surplus plutonium, a severe
accident involving one of the trucks would pose more risk to the
public from the collision itself than from its cargo. No fatalities
are likely, the study said.
The trucks themselves are so heavily armored they've been dubbed
"rolling bank vaults," said Jim Hardeman, manager of environmental
radiation for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Hardeman said the chances of an accident or terrorist attack that
releases radiation from the shipment as remote. But unlike shipments
of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel, state authorities will get
no heads-up when plutonium is headed their way.
Despite that and the Energy Department's announcement that
shipments wouldn't begin for a week, S.C. Highway Patrol and
transport police began carrying out the order to block shipments
Friday afternoon. State Public Safety Director Boykin Rose said
state police are deployed.
In April, Hodges supervised a drill in which troopers practiced
stopping a truck. Friday, he said he had no option but to block the
"Once plutonium arrives, it will never leave," he said. "They
want South Carolina to quietly become the nation's dumping ground.
Any accident would potentially cause great damage to our state and
to the people in the surrounding area."