Radioactive Waste: A Political Hot Potato


It's dj vu all over again: A Republican rules the White House and the U.S. Department of Energy is pushing for plutonium shipments to a state that doesn't want them, where a Democratic governor is threatening to use armed state troopers to block the shipments.

Fourteen years ago, that was the situation in Idaho, where Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus ultimately ordered state police to stop a plutonium-laden train dispatched to the state by Republican President Ronald Reagan's administration.

Today, the same thing is happening in South Carolina. Gov. Jim Hodges has vowed to use state troopers, and even lay down in the road himself, to block plutonium from entering his borders. Hodges wants assurances the plutonium won't be left there forever.

"I think Hodges has dramatized, with his threat to block the shipments, a legitimate public policy issue that also has a lot of political implications," said Jack Bass, a professor of politics at the College of Charleston.

"There's a tremendous amount of low-level radioactive material in this state. There's a lot of wariness about agreements; a lot of concern that if plutonium ever gets here it may stay," he said.

Plutonium is a radioactive, silver-gray metal ideal for use in nuclear weapons. Two pounds of plutonium contains as much energy as 3,800 tons of coal. But the metal is also a health hazard -- a spec of plutonium dust in the lungs can cause cancer after a few years.

That's one reason Andrus stood up to the federal government in October 1988. He said he was tired of watching his state's "temporary" nuclear waste dump become a permanent fixture and that Idaho would accept no more shipments of plutonium.

After announcing his decision, Andrus dispatched state police to block a plutonium-filled railroad car that had already crossed the state line. Idaho police stopped the train in Blackfoot, Idaho, a town of 10,500 people.

Andrus said at the time his order had little legal justification, but he felt it was warranted on other grounds.

"The legal grounds are not near as important as the moral and political grounds, and I can use the courts until you step on my beard," Andrus told the New York Times in October 1988.

Andrus eventually persuaded a federal judge to require an environmental impact study before the shipments would be allowed to continue. Related legal action led to a settlement agreement that set deadlines for shipping nuclear waste out of Idaho.

Hodges finds himself at a similar confluence of legal, moral and political concerns, as he resists federal shipments of plutonium to the state's Savannah River nuclear site.

"This is one of those areas of the intersection of law and politics," said Eldon Wedlock, professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

"From a political perspective, the governor is seen as defending the state of South Carolina from an invasion from the North," Wedlock said.

"From a legal perspective, the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution essentially gives the federal government the power to accomplish their objective," he said. This could include the federalizing of state police or other law enforcement agents, effectively superseding the governor's orders.

But the Supremacy Clause doesn't give the Department of Energy free license to do whatever it wants, said Wedlock. The department is bound by federal law and courts -- a fact Hodges is trying to capitalize on in a lawsuit against the department.

Hodges claims the Energy Dept. has failed to meet past obligations, noting that it has already cancelled one of two programs designed to treat the plutonium.

Hodges is worried the department may cancel the second program too, leaving South Carolina with a load of plutonium it can't get rid of.

The lawsuit seeks a court-ordered injunction to halt the shipments until the larger legal and disposal issues are worked out. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for June 13. Plutonium shipments are slated to roll on or after June 15.

The legal confrontation follows months of tussling between Hodges and the Department of Energy.

The dispute started in August last year, when Hodges ordered the South Carolina Highway Patrol to draw-up plans to block a shipment of plutonium the governor believed to be en route.

At the time, Hodges blamed the Bush Administration for backing out of a Clinton Administration plan to convert the plutonium to fuel for power plants or encase it in glass.

Throughout the dispute, charges of political opportunism have been tossed around like hand grenades. And not only in South Carolina.

In Colorado, Sen. Wayne Allard (R) is campaigning for reelection on his efforts to rid his state of plutonium, which is located outside Denver at the Rocky Flats nuclear site. Current plans call for the dismantling and cleanup of Rocky Flats by 2006.

To stay on schedule, plutonium must begin shipping immediately to South Carolina, according to Spencer Abraham, the U.S. secretary of energy.

But a spokesman for The Kaiser-Hill Company, a private contractor in charge of the cleanup, said there's no need to rush the shipments, reports the New York Times .

Some South Carolina politicians have seized on this information, saying it shows the Bush administration is trying to move the plutonium purely for the political gain of Colorado's Allard, a key Republican senator.

"The administration has decided that it can dump radioactive junk into our backyard and we'll still vote for Bush," said Richard Harpootlian, chairman of South Carolina's Democratic party. "But Colorado is a much closer state, and they want to give the upper hand to Allard."

Regardless of the Bush Administration's motivation for wanting to get the plutonium moving soon, the June 13 court hearing will give all parties a better idea if and when the plutonium will ship, and for Hodges, whether his future includes reclining in the road in front of plutonium-filled trucks.


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