Nuclear Waste Move Spews Political Fallout in 2 States

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April 17, 2002

Nuclear Waste Move Spews Political Fallout in 2 States

By DAVID FIRESTONE

IKEN, S.C., April 16 Less than a month from now, under extreme secrecy and high-tech security, a heavily armed convoy of trucks is to begin rolling from Colorado to a government fortress near here along the Savannah River. It will carry the first shipment of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium once aimed at the Soviet Union.

After it arrives, the plutonium is to be converted to fuel for nuclear power plants. But a number of arms control advocates and Democratic politicians here say a principal purpose of the shipment is to enhance the re-election prospects of Senator Wayne Allard, a Republican from Colorado who is campaigning on his efforts to rid his state of plutonium.

Gov. Jim Hodges of South Carolina, a Democrat, has been trying for months to get the shipments delayed, but late Monday night, the Department of Energy announced that the plutonium could be on the road as early as May 15. Although the head of the private company that is cleaning up the heavily radioactive Rocky Flats nuclear site near Denver has said there is no need to rush the shipments, the secretary of energy, Spencer Abraham, said the plutonium must begin moving to close the site by 2006.

Governor Hodges, whose stand against the plutonium will also be useful in his re-election campaign this year, is so angry about the shipments that he met with the state highway patrol today to discuss methods of blocking the plutonium trucks at the state line. In an interview today, he said he was concerned that the radioactive material would never leave South Carolina if the conversion technology did not work.

"It seems like the concerns of South Carolina voters are somehow secondary to the concerns of Colorado voters," Mr. Hodges said. "I'll leave it to your imagination as to why that is."

One of his close allies, Richard A. Harpootlian, the state Democratic chairman, was not as coy, saying the movement of nuclear waste is part of a clear political calculus by the Bush administration.

"The administration has decided that it can dump radioactive junk into our backyard and we'll still vote for Bush," said Mr. Harpootlian, referring to the state's modern history of voting for Republican presidential candidates. "But Colorado is a much closer state, and they want to give the upper hand to Allard."

Mr. Allard is now in a close re-election race against Tom Strickland, a former United States attorney for Colorado and a Democrat. Bush administration officials have campaigned for Mr. Allard, hoping not to lose another seat in a narrowly divided Senate, and have backed the effort he led to turn Rocky Flats into a wildlife preserve by 2006. If the plutonium began leaving Colorado for South Carolina this spring, it would be seen as an important political accomplishment for Mr. Allard.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for Mr. Abraham, said that if the plutonium did not start moving out of Colorado now, the department would miss its deadline to close down the Rocky Flats site by 2006. In addition, he said, a slowdown now to satisfy Governor Hodges would jeopardize a pact with Russia, which has also agreed to begin reprocessing its nuclear-warhead fuel so that it could no longer be used for weapons.

"Getting this done now is a matter of national security, and that's our primary motivation," Mr. Davis said, denying that political considerations had any role. "We can't afford to have our partners in Russia thinking twice about whether they should do this."

But even if the plutonium begins moving this spring, it will sit in storage at the Savannah River Site near here for years until the mixed-oxide conversion plant begins operation in 2007 or 2008. (When it will be shipped back across the country to Nevada! Just in time to try to "buy back" the election in S.C. for republicans) Officials at the Nuclear Control Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington that opposes the reprocessing into power-plant fuel, said Russia was nowhere near ready to begin its part of the bargain.

"Neither side has overcome the technical hurdles of converting this material," said Tom Clements, executive director of the institute. "They're playing a risky game in getting the plutonium on the road now, just to help Allard's re-election campaign, so that they can say they're closing down Rocky Flats."

The Kaiser-Hill Company, a private contractor that is doing the cleanup work at Rocky Flats, said there was no need to begin moving the plutonium now to meet the 2006 deadline. "I'm not particularly interested about when the first shipment goes, just the last one," Alan Parker, Kaiser-Hill's president, told The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last November. A company spokesman, John Corsi, confirmed today that the company believed it would meet the 2006 deadline regardless of when the plutonium began the move.

The plutonium in question is part of the 34 metric tons that the United States and Russia each agreed to take from their warheads and decommission after the end of the cold war reduced the need for nuclear deterrence. While it is in weapons form, it remains extremely dangerous terrorists could make a nuclear bomb out of 12 pounds. Once it is converted to power-plant fuel, it can no longer be used in such a weapon.

Governor Hodges said he was worried that if the conversion technology did not work, or a later administration found the process too expensive, the plutonium would never leave South Carolina. He said his government would block the shipments unless the Energy Department agreed to a legally binding court order to remove the plutonium from the state if it could not be converted.

Mr. Abraham said the issue did not belong before a judge, but agreed to seek legislation guaranteeing that the material would not remain in South Carolina, and promised to stop the shipments by Oct. 15 if the bill did not pass. That did not satisfy Mr. Hodges, who said the bill would have to pass before the first shipment would be allowed.

Mr. Allard, whose office did not return calls today, has been quite critical of Governor Hodges in recent days, accusing him of threatening national security and playing politics. But it is not just Democratic politicians in South Carolina who are affected by the shipments. Lindsey Graham, a Republican congressman who represents part of this area and who is running for the Senate this year, has been placed in a difficult position, trying to work out a compromise between the Bush administration and state government.

In an interview today, Mr. Graham said he believed he could avoid an armed confrontation at the border by getting the bill guaranteeing the plutonium's future passed in the 30 days before the first shipment. Although bills rarely move at that speed, he said he believed the importance of the issue would outweigh the political skirmishing.

"If we slip up on this, it's just a matter of time before those plutonium bullets wind up in someone else's gun," he said.

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But we stopped "buying" the nuclear waste from the Soviet Union, leaving them to sell it to terrorists, unregulated and with no paper trail. As if someone would walk in off the street in the U.S. and buy it as they have over there.

Those weak, stupid arguements from republicans are getting pretty far fetched these days.

By the time Bush and his administration is voted out of office (or impeached-whatever comes first), no one will believe anything they say.

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), April 17, 2002

Answers

Harpootlian? Thanks Cherri.

And if we kept buying from the Ruskies just where do we put it? Certainly not in South Carolina. Washington state maybe. Same old Nimby pol posture stuff. Don't take it seriously.

-- Carlos (riffraff@cybertime.net), April 17, 2002.


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