Court Ruling Allows Plutonium Shipments to South Carolina

July/August 2002

By Alex Wagner

In mid-June, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by South Carolina to block the delivery of plutonium to the state’s Savannah River Site. The ruling allows the Energy Department to begin the shipments and prevents a delay in the implementation of a September 2000 agreement under which the United States and Russia each pledged to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium removed from nuclear weapons.

An Energy Department spokesman said June 28 that the department would not have begun shipping the plutonium earlier than June 22 but that whether those shipments have started is classified. The plutonium is currently stored at a facility in Colorado that used to make fissile cores for nuclear weapons and is now scheduled to be dismantled. The material will be stored at Savannah River until workers at the site render it unusable for nuclear weapons, as called for by the 2000 agreement. (See ACT, July/August 2000.)

South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges (D) has opposed the shipments, concerned that the plutonium will remain in storage indefinitely because the technology to dispose of it is unproven. South Carolina officials have also complained that the Energy Department has not adequately studied the environmental impact of storing the plutonium at Savannah River.

Hodges filed a lawsuit in May asking the courts to block the shipments pending an environmental impact study, successfully delaying the plutonium’s delivery for more than a month. However, U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie ruled June 13 that it would be unconstitutional to block the shipments and rejected the governor’s contention that the Energy Department had not conducted a satisfactory environmental impact assessment.

Hodges had previously declared he would do “whatever it takes” to block the plutonium’s delivery. But Currie opted not to issue a pre-emptive injunction to prevent Hodges from staging a roadblock to halt the shipments. “I don’t want to presume the governor will break the law,” she said.

Despite Currie’s ruling, Hodges issued an executive order June 14 prohibiting “any persons transporting plutonium” from entering South Carolina, citing “a legitimate threat of theft, diversion, or use of plutonium by terrorists” and noting the recent capture of a man suspected of plotting to detonate a radiological weapon in the United States. (See U.S. Announces It Uncovered ‘Dirty Bomb’ Plot.) The order also barred the transport of plutonium shipments on state roads and directed the state’s Department of Public Safety to enforce its terms.

In response, the Energy Department requested an injunction to block Hodges’ order, which Currie granted June 18. “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,” Currie said.

At a June 18 press conference, Hodges acquiesced, saying that he would “respect the court’s order” but then appealed the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court subsequently rejected his request to halt the plutonium shipments, but it agreed to hold a hearing July 10 on Hodges’ contention that the Energy Department has not performed an adequate environmental impact study.