- WASHINGTON--Orval Faubus blocked the schoolhouse door in Little Rock, Ark. George Wallace blocked the doors of the University of Alabama.

Now another Southern governor, South Carolina's Jim Hodges, is talking about lying down in the middle of the road to block federal plutonium shipments from Colorado, or sending the highway patrol to block the trucks.

The comparison makes some South Carolinians wince. But Hodges' nuclear maneuvers are getting more dramatic by the day. Today, the state patrol will practice its plan to block the shipment at the state line on the governor's instruction.

For the 2.5 million people within 50 miles of the old Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant near Broomfield, the possible standoff is more than a far-off southern sideshow. It could affect whether the $7 billion decontamination of the plant stays on track for 2006. And some Colorado officials fear if the 2006 deadline slips, the whole house of cards could crumble.

Striving to meet that enshrined 2006 deadline, Energy Secretary Spence Abraham last week ordered shipments to begin May 15. Rocky Flats' 6 tons of plutonium left over from years of making triggers for nuclear bombs are to be hauled to the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., where they'll be turned into mixed-oxide nuclear fuel.

But Hodges worries that the federal government will change plans or cut funding and leave those 6 tons, and 28 tons from other bomb plants, at Savannah River, turning South Carolina into the nation's nuclear dumping ground.

Abraham and Hodges have agreed on terms that would ensure that the waste would leave South Carolina, but Abraham balked at putting the agreement before a federal judge as Hodges suggested. So the governor restarted his plans to resist, rescheduling a roadblock training he'd scuttled last year. The Bush administration and nuclear activists figure he's drafting a lawsuit seeking to block the shipments.

South Carolina Democrats are charging that the Bush administration's decision to ship the waste shows that it has picked Colorado voters over South Carolina voters in order to help U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Loveland, win re-election.

"This is a calculated political move on part of Sen. Allard and the Bush administration to gain advantage in a close Senate race," said S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian. "If it's still there in November, it will be an issue."

Getting Rocky Flats cleaned up quickly and turned into a wildlife refuge is a key part of the environmental record Allard hopes to use to fight off Democrat Tom Strickland. But Hodges is running for re-election, too, and some South Carolina Republicans gripe that he doesn't want to solve the plutonium issue so much as use it as campaign fodder.

The Bush administration says getting the waste moving isn't politics, it's national security. And Republicans note Rocky Flats is in the district of U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, who also wants the site cleaned up quickly.

"Ask Mark Udall if he thinks this is a partisan thing," Allard said. For his part, Udall's staff says he looks at 2006 more as a goal than a deadline.

"Slippage of 2006 isn't great," said Doug Young, Udall's key staffer on Rocky Flats. "But it's not devastating if we can reach the goals we want even if it takes a little longer."

But Allard says if the 2006 plan falls apart, it may be harder to persuade Congress to keep shelling out huge amounts of money to speed up the process at Rocky Flats.

Others question whether the current delays would even affect the 2006 closure date. Alan Parker, president of Kaiser-Hill, the company cleaning up the site, told the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last year: "I'm not particularly interested about when the first shipment goes, just the last one."

The New York Times reported that company spokesman John Coursi confirmed the company believed it would meet the 2006 deadline regardless of when the plutonium began the move.

Coursi referred questions to DOE, which provided a letter from Coursi calling the Times story "false."

At the U.S. Justice Department, lawyers are looking at whether to send federal marshals along with the shipments, and studying the law about whether a state can block the shipments.

Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources, said Friday he expects South Carolina to file suit before the shipments start.

"The question will be whether a judge's decision delays the shipments," said Sansonetti, a lawyer from Cheyenne. "If the judge says yes, the trucks stop right there. If he says no, the trucks keep going. If he (Hodges) sends out the troopers, we'll have to see about that." For now, Hodges' spokeswoman, Cortney Owings will say only that such a suit "is definitely being considered." But a lawsuit isn't the only threat to Rocky Flats meeting the cleanup deadline.

There's already a lawsuit pending that could delay cleanup down the road. A group in the California Bay area has sued DOE to stop shipments of surplus bombs from Rocky Flats to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, saying the containers they plan to ship them in aren't safe. The lawyer leading the case, Trent Orr of Earthjustice, says that if the group gets what it wants -- an in-depth study lasting a year to 18 months -- the cleanup could be delayed. But DOE and the office of U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder, say the amount of plutonium involved is relatively tiny and aren't worried that the suit would hold up shipments.

And DOE has never said what it plans to do with two metric tons of "very impure" nuclear waste. One ton is from Rocky Flats. When the government changed its disposal plans earlier this year, DOE told lawmakers and the press that the material would be "Shipped directly to waste," but has never said what that means. Nuclear activists said the waste, generally plutonium residue on filters and equipment, was headed for New Mexico until U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., stepped in to block the plan. DOE spokespeople have said that if a site isn't found by the middle of next year, it could delay the clean-up.


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