Can Nikki Haley stop plutonium from being shipped to South Carolina?

posted at 2:01 pm on March 28, 2016 by Jazz Shaw

Now that South Carolina has their primary elections and the uprooting of the Confederate Battle Flag out of the way they clearly need something new to worry about and this should certainly fill the bill. Thanks to a nuclear containment deal made with the Japanese over the past few years, the Palmetto State is schedule to be the lucky recipient of more than a quarter ton of weapons grade plutonium in the near future and Governor Nikki Haley is none too pleased with the prospect. (The Hill)

In a letter to Secretary Ernest Moniz on Wednesday, Haley demanded that the agency “stop shipment or re-route” about 730 pounds of weapons grade plutonium being transported from Japan.

“Continued shipments of plutonium into our state puts South Carolina at risk for becoming a permanent dumping ground for nuclear materials. It is imperative to the safety of our citizens and our environment that South Carolina not allow this to happen,” Haley said in the letter.

The fuel is slated for conversion into “less sensitive” forms after it arrives (though how much less sensitive you can make plutonium in the short term is a matter of much debate) and it’s not as if there isn’t already some of the hot stuff stored there. At issue is the ongoing nature of the process and concerns by both the Governor and her citizens over their potential for becoming a dumping ground. But does the Governor have the ability to simply shut down the process?

The answer seems to be technically no, but in reality she could make it very uncomfortable for the feds to proceed. This story is reminiscent of the fight between the White House and Idaho last year over the shipment of spent nuclear fuel rods to their state for disposal. State officials expressed very public concern over the creation of a “Yucca Mountain in Idaho.” After months of wrangling, the project was at least temporarily put on hold when the first shipment was cancelled, mostly over technicalities. (Associated Press)

Federal authorities have canceled the first of two proposed research shipments of spent nuclear fuel to eastern Idaho but still hope to deliver the second.

The U.S. Department of Energy said Friday that 25 fuel rods weighing about 100 pounds will not be sent to the Idaho National Laboratory.

The move comes after federal and state officials couldn’t come to terms on a waiver to a 1995 agreement that ties such shipments to nuclear waste cleanup at the 890-square-mile site. The federal agency is currently in violation of the agreement because of its failure to convert 900,000 gallons of liquid waste into solid form due to malfunctions at a $571 million plant.

That one wasn’t a case of backing down entirely on the part of the feds so much as it was a clear cut case of breach of contract. The second scheduled shipment was set up despite that temporary victory, so the overarching question of whether or not the state has anything to say about it was left up in the air. When the material is destined for federal property (as opposed to some state facility) there seem to be limits to how much a governor can do. But that doesn’t mean that politics can’t twist the situation into much more difficult knots. If you look at the history of a much more famous project, we should have already had our nation’s spent nuclear fuel rod situation under control almost a decade ago thanks to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. But that massive hole in the ground was held up thanks to two simple words: Harry Reid.

This situation in South Carolina is different of course because we’re talking about a totally different type of material from an external source, but the logistics are similar in terms of the politics. The difference may be that Haley doesn’t have the kind of muscle that Reid held over the last decades. So if the plutonium isn’t going to Nikki Haley’s back yard, where will it end up?

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