By Philipp C. Bleek
After months of negotiations, the Energy Department and South Carolina are at an impasse that threatens to stall U.S. implementation of an agreement with Russia on disposing of weapons-origin plutonium.
South Carolina’s Savannah River Site is due to receive the plutonium for storage until it can be rendered unusable for nuclear weapons. But state officials are worried that technological, political, and financial uncertainties could prevent the plutonium from ever leaving the state. These concerns have led Governor Jim Hodges (D) to stall shipments absent a binding contract submitted in a federal court or legislation specifying when the material will be removed and containing “an ironclad enforceability mechanism,” including “substantial monetary penalties for noncompliance.”
After the two sides failed to reach agreement following months of talks, in mid-April Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham notified both Congress and Hodges that he intends to begin shipments soon, irrespective of whether agreement is reached. By law, Abraham must give Congress 30-days’ notice before shipments begin.
In an April 15 letter informing Hodges of his decision, Abraham argued, “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 that facility in 2006.” The plutonium is currently stored at Rocky Flats, a former plutonium pit production facility located in Colorado that is due to be fully dismantled.
Abraham also said that he supports legislation that would address Hodges’ concerns and suggested that Congress could approve such legislation within the 30-day window before shipments begin. However, it remains unclear whether Abraham would support legislation that meets Hodges’ precise terms.
In an April 21 editorial response in Spartanburg’s Herald-Journal, Hodges condemned the Energy Department’s “scare tactics and its stiff-arm approach” and said that absent an acceptable agreement, “I will do everything in my power” to keep the material out of South Carolina. Hodges has repeatedly threatened to deploy police to block shipments at the state’s border, and the state is preparing to bring suit against the Energy Department in a federal court.
Hodges has also expressed skepticism that Congress could approve legislation within the 30-day window. The issue now appears likely to be fought out in the courts.
The dispute relates to a September 2000 agreement under which Washington and Moscow agreed to each dispose of 34 tons of weapons-origin plutonium. Under the agreement, each side must seek to start operating their disposition facilities by 2007. The United States has made limited progress to date, while Russia’s program remains essentially stalled, in large part due to insufficient international financial contributions.
To dispose of the material, the Clinton administration decided to pursue a dual-track approach, whereby some of the plutonium would be converted into mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel and irradiated in nuclear power reactors and some of it would be “immobilized” in ceramic and glass and mixed with high-level radioactive waste. (See ACT, July/August 2000.) But after a review, the Bush administration decided last January to scrap the immobilization approach and focus its efforts on MOX. (See ACT, March 2002.)
That move raised concerns in South Carolina because MOX technology remains relatively unproven and because some of the material designated for disposal is not readily suitable for processing into MOX fuel. That contention was bolstered by an April 12 Nuclear Regulatory Commission memorandum that said the MOX program continues to be characterized by “substantial uncertainties.”