MIAMI, June 18 -- It was a brash pledge, the kind that easily could
have defined a career.
Few really expected him to do it, but South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges
(D) kept saying he would -- kept insisting he would -- lie in the middle
of the road to block U.S. government trucks from hauling plutonium into
For a time, the pledge took on a life of its own, but today it
Hodges, who last week briefly sent state troopers to South Carolina's
borders in search of plutonium haulers, declared an end to his plans for a
blockade today after a federal judge sternly ordered him not to get in the
way. Hodges's reluctant acquiescence clears a path for the U.S. Department
of Energy to send 34 metric tons of plutonium from three obsolete nuclear
weapons facilities to be reprocessed at the Savannah River nuclear power
plant, 60 miles southwest of Columbia, S.C.
"It is a sad day for South Carolina when the governor . . . who has
taken an oath to uphold the Constitution must be ordered by a court to
obey it," U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie said during a court hearing
After Currie's ruling, Hodges vowed to appeal the decision to the U.S.
Supreme Court, saying he is "not willing to let the federal government
turn our state into the nation's nuclear dumping ground." But, knowing
that trucks may begin the cross-country trip as soon as Saturday, Hodges
also acknowledged that his fight has been lost, at least for now.
"The bureaucrats at the Department of Energy have prevailed," Hodges
said at a news conference, according to a transcript of his remarks. "I
don't apologize for our efforts, our suit, our blockade. I make no
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham praised the ruling today, saying:
"America's national security and the security and safety of South Carolina
citizens is well-served by ensuring the plutonium arrives safely, without
interruption, at the Savannah River site."
The tense, year-long confrontation between Hodges and Abraham had
threatened to jeopardize a complicated $3.8 billion federal plan for the
cross-country shipment of weapons-grade plutonium to South Carolina from
obsolete nuclear weapons plants in Colorado, Texas and Washington
Hodges complained that the Energy Department changed the original plan
for reprocessing the plutonium at the Savannah River site without the
state's consent. He said he fears that if the government's new approach
falls through, South Carolina will be stuck with piles of unwanted
"The federal government broke its promises," Hodges said. "If you or I
give our word and then violate it, we get in trouble. But these rules
apparently don't apply to the federal government."
The squabble comes while Hodges, whose popularity has suffered during
the economic downturn, is in the throes of a difficult reelection bid. He
used campaign money to buy television advertisements urging residents to
call the Energy Department to complain about the shipments. The tactic
angered Energy Department officials, who accused him of breaking with
tradition by politicizing a national security issue.
Hodges's pledge to block shipments by lying in the road appeared to
play well with voters initially, but the appeal seemed to be waning, said
Neal Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University.
"When the possibility became real that it might happen, then, I think
perhaps, the snicker factor began to set in," Thigpen said. "Do you want
to see the governor of your state lying in the road? It's not grown-up
The plutonium comes from obsolete nuclear weapons facilities in Rocky
Flats, Colo., near Denver; the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Tex.; and
Hanford, Wash. The plutonium -- enough to make more than 4,200 nuclear
weapons -- will be shipped from the plants to South Carolina for
conversion into fuel that will be used to run nuclear generators.
The controversy over the shipments arises from a 1996 agreement in
which the United States and Russia pledged to take equal amounts of
plutonium from their nuclear stockpiles to keep it from falling into the
The Clinton administration provisionally planned to process the
plutonium using two techniques: One would immobilize the plutonium by
converting it into ceramic pellets; the other would convert the unwanted
nuclear material into a mixed oxide fuel, or MOX, for use in two
commercial nuclear reactors operated by Duke Energy Corp. in North
Carolina and South Carolina.
Immobilization is a far cheaper, quicker and safer process than MOX,
according to the Nuclear Control Institute and other environmental groups
challenging the government's plan. But the Department of Energy announced
in January that it was canceling the immobilization program and relying
solely on the MOX process, explaining later that the changes were
necessary because of "budgetary constraints" and Russian objections to the
"If you're going to have an international agreement you have to have a
program that both countries can agree to," said Joe Davis, a department
Critics charge that the department is taking a big chance by relying
solely on the costly MOX program.
"DOE is trying to carry out this program in a haphazard and slipshod
manner," said Edwin Lyman, president of the Nuclear Control Institute.
Hodges said he worried that the conversion program would never be fully
funded by the government and that the chemically unstable plutonium would
be kept indefinitely at the Savannah River site.
Last February, Duke Energy filed a memorandum with the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission acknowledging that "the future use of MOX fuel" at
its two nuclear reactors "is not a certainty" and that "substantial
uncertainties and contingencies continue to surround the program." Duke
Energy later said that it still intends to ask the NRC for permission
within the next two years to use the MOX fuel at the two power plants.
Abraham and other Energy Department officials say they have "gone the
extra mile" in trying to address the governor's concern, including
preparing a detailed agreement assuring that all plutonium sent to
Savannah River would have "a clear path out of South Carolina."
Pianin reported from Washington.