Court Supports Plutonium Shipments
Environment News Service, Washington,
DC, August 7, 2002
Original address: http://ens-news.com/ens/aug2002/2002-08-07-09.asp
A federal appeals court has ruled that the Department
of Energy (DOE) may continue to ship plutonium to South Carolina for
conversion to mixed oxide (MOX) fuel.
The three judge panel from the U.S. 4th Circuit
Court of Appeals denied South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges' appeal of
a lower court ruling allowing the shipments to proceed. The judges'
ruling was unanimous.
"We are pleased that the court (4th Circuit Court of Appeals)
affirmed the lower court's ruling today which said that DOE's decisionmaking
and actions on this matter complied with the law," said DOE spokesperson
Joe Davis. "This Administration is committed to ensuring America's
national security and the security of the people of South Carolina are
maintained by proceeding with a program to dispose of weapons grade
plutonium in a safe and responsible manner."
On Tuesday, Hodges vowed to take his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme
"This weapons grade plutonium is a threat to the health and safety
of our state," Hodges said. The governor said he plans to prepare
a brief requesting that the Supreme Court hear the case.
The DOE intends to dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons grade plutonium
by the end of 2019, through the conversion of the material to MOX fuel
for use in commercial nuclear power reactors. The plutonium, pure enough
to be used in nuclear weapons, is now located at Rocky Flats, at the
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and at the PANTEX
Facility in Amarillo, Texas.
About 76 trailer loads of plutonium are expected to be shipped from
Rocky Flats alone. The plutonium would be treated at the Savannah River
Site near Aiken, in an as yet unbuilt conversion plant.
But the DOE's MOX program has been plagued by escalating costs, legal
challenges and delays. In February, Duke Power, the utility selected
to use the MOX fuel in its McGuire and Catawba reactors, testified before
a Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceeding that "the future use
of MOX fuel at McGuire and Catawba reactors is not a certainty. Substantial
uncertainties and contingencies continued to surround the program."
Governor Hodges, a Democrat, has argued that the DOE has not done sufficient
environmental studies to ensure that processing the plutonium into MOX
would be safe, or that storing the plutonium in South Carolina - as
might happen in the MOX program is terminated - would not harm the public
or the environment.
The appeals court judges disagreed. "We are satisfied that the
DOE took a 'hard look' at the environmental consequences," of shipping
and treating the plutonium, the judges ruled, calling the DOE's plans
"neither arbitrary nor capricious."
Hodges said the federal government has promised not to store the plutonium
in his state, where it would be processed, but has failed to make a
legally binding pledge. He is demanding a court decree enforcing the
federal government's promise.
Critics of the MOX fuel proposal charge that burning MOX in nuclear
reactors increases the public health risks from nuclear accidents, particularly
when the reactors were not originally designed to burn MOX fuel.