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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nuclear Waste

Air Date: Week of

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Colorado’s plutonium is destined for South Carolina, but the governor of South Carolina has been waging a vocal campaign against the incoming shipments. The Denver Post’s Mike Soroghan (SORAHAN) discusses the situation with Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: For more than 35 years, Colorado’s Rocky Flats Arsenal produced nuclear and non-nuclear weapons for the U.S. Military. The facility closed more than a decade ago. And the Department of Energy plans to turn the site into a wildlife refuge. But first, all the radioactive plutonium must be removed. Most of that plutonium is supposed to be heading to South Carolina to be reprocessed for nuclear reactor fuel. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s governor has mounted an active campaign to keep the plutonium out of his state.

Joining me is Mike Soroghan, a reporter with The Denver Post Washington Bureau, who’s been covering the story. Hi, Mike.

SOROGHAN: Thanks for having me.

TOOMEY: South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges has, so far, been unsuccessful in blocking these shipments through the courts. He’s promised, though, to lie down in the street himself and block the trucks of plutonium when they come into his state. He’s taken out an ad saying, "No plutonium in South Carolina." So, based on all that, it might appear that he’s against bringing this waste into the state. But that’s not exactly the case, is it?

SOROGHAN: Right. When the governor of South Carolina has a chance to explain things in more than just a TV screen, he will always throw in a caveat that he doesn’t want it without iron clad protections, or make sure that the Department of Energy keeps its promises. Now, the subtext to that is that to get it out of the state, you have to build a several billion dollar reprocessing plant. That means 1,100 to 1,300 jobs, and continued missions and job security for the Savannah River site, which is a major employer in that area.

TOOMEY: Describe for us the Savannah River site. What is there?

SOROGHAN: It’s a fairly massive Department of Energy facility that was started in the early ’50s as part of the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Program. It’s about 310 square miles on the Savannah River. And, it employs about 14,000 people in the surrounding area. And it is already storing about two metric tons of plutonium. As was pointed out in the court hearing, it’s actually in a less stable form at Savannah River than the plutonium will be that is arriving from Colorado, although it will be stored in a less secure facility than what exists at Rocky Flats in Colorado.

TOOMEY: Why is Hodges, though, worried that the Federal government would not build the reprocessing plant? Isn’t that called for right now in federal plans?

SOROGHAN: Yes, it’s called for. And, he says that we’re dealing with dates in the range of 2015, 2020, and further out. The federal government plans have changed in the past, and could change in the future. And so, his argument was that he wanted a promise that was backed by the court. Because the federal funding cycle goes year to year, he wanted some assurance that the government would feel some financial pain if it decided to withdraw funding for the reprocessing facility.

TOOMEY: So it looks like the bottom line is the plutonium that is now in Colorado is headed for South Carolina.

SOROGHAN: Yes. Shipments could start anytime now. The trucks could start rolling from Rocky Flats. There’s no longer any agreement by the DOE or injunction by the court to not ship, which means they can start loading the trucks. These things are called Safe Secure Transports, or SSTs. And, this is basically a 12 to 18 month process to move, I believe, about 1900 containers of this plutonium -- it’s six metric tons of plutonium -- between Rocky Flats and South Carolina.

Now, Governor Hodges does have an appeal pending before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. But, he has lost his bid for any kind of injunction against transporting it. So, conceivably, there could be a ruling by the Appeals Court, or even the Supreme Court, down the road. But you’d already have some amount of plutonium at Savannah River in South Carolina. And, as was conceded in court last week, it would be very difficult to get it out of there at that point.

TOOMEY: So will we see the governor lying down on the road?

SOROGHAN: No. I believe the governor has pretty well agreed not to do that. The judge has said any kind of blockade is illegal. And, Hodges has said that he will respect a court order, which has been granted. So, I think things move forward at this point.

TOOMEY: Mike Soroghan is a reporter with The Denver Post Washington Bureau. Mike, thanks for joining us today.

SOROGHAN: Thanks for having me.




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