Former Gov. Hodges on MOX: Aiken deserves better
Editor's Note: This story, as well as last week's “MOX 101” story will be followed up next week with a “MOX 102” story which will explain more important details about the MOX contract.
Former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges said he had a good reason for threatening to lie in the middle of the road to block shipments of plutonium from entering the Savannah River Site in 2002.
The federal government's decision to put the MOX project in a cold stand-by has been met with relentless criticism by South Carolina politicians on all levels.
One person who isn't surprised by the controversy is Hodges, who served as governor from 1999 to 2003.
Hodges spoke to the Aiken Standard about that time period and how, even then, he saw potential for the government to renege on multiple parts of its agreement with South Carolina.
Early parts of the agreement
Hodges explained that under President Bill Clinton's administration, the Department of Energy came to South Carolina with the proposal for the MOX project.
“DOE said, ‘If you'll assist in disposition, we'll provide funding to construct this MOX facility to convert plutonium into a useful source,'” Hodges said.
The agreement obviously had attractive economic opportunities and a chance for more job opportunities in the local community.
The agreement also came with a promise that if the project failed, the government would seal MOX material in glass cases and ship those materials to Yucca Mountain – a plan that was in the works to serve as a waste repository Site in Nevada.
Signs of conflict
At the turn of the millennium, changes in the agreement between the state and the Department of Energy began occurring.
Under President George W. Bush's administration, Hodges said DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham reported some unwanted news in 2001.
“Abraham said DOE was no longer going to use the glassification method to move waste from the Site if MOX failed,” he said. “DOE said there was no need for it since they were sure MOX was going to work.”
At that moment, Hodges said he realized how imperative it was to make sure the federal government upheld its end of the bargain and come up with an exit strategy for the plutonium.
“I knew once that plutonium came to our state, we would have no leverage to make the government honor its commitments,” he said.
Written in stone
Before shipments of plutonium came to SRS, Hodges wanted a written agreement signed by DOE that it would remove the plutonium if the MOX facility failed.
That desire prompted several letters between Hodges and Abraham.
On April 10, 2002, Hodges sent a letter to Abraham stating that earlier that year, Abraham assured him that DOE would develop an exit strategy for the plutonium.
“You assured me that DOE would be bound by law to retake possession of the plutonium if the Federal Government failed to live up to its commitment,” Hodges wrote. “I must insist on an ironclad agreement that is fully enforceable in a court of law.”
Abraham responded a day later with a letter stating that the government did in fact commit “to maintain a pathway out of South Carolina for any plutonium brought into the state, including firm dates by which such material would be removed from the State if DOE, for any reason, were unable to secure the funding necessary to build the MOX facility.”
Hodges responded the same day with a final letter, stating that the agreement was still not a guarantee.
“Your allegations that the State of South Carolina has modified its position of a plutonium disposition plan are simply wrong,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, everything your letter and agreement offer can be changed unilaterally by the current or any future administration.”
Middle of the road
Hodges said he continued fighting to secure an exit plan. That fight eventually led to a May 2002 lawsuit against DOE to halt plutonium shipments. When the lawsuit was dismissed a month later, Hodges made the statement heard around the nation – That he would lie in the middle of the road to prevent shipments of plutonium from coming to SRS.
“I was trying to get the attention of the federal government that we were serious about stopping a potential tragedy from occurring,” Hodges said. “I was ready to use what means I had to get them to hear us.”
Hodges' efforts – as extreme as they may have been at the time – are linked to an intuition out of fears that are now coming to fruition. The government is attempting to pull out of the MOX project with no current exit strategy for the plutonium in place.
“There just weren't a lot of options available at the time,” Hodges said. “We tried discussions, agreements, letters ... as governor, I was left with very few options.”
Striking a deal
In December 2002, President Bush finally signed a defense bill that set timetables for the removal of the plutonium.
Under the bill, if the MOX program was not successfully operating by 2017, then all remaining plutonium must be removed immediately or a fine of $1 million a day would be applied, capping at $100 million a year.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. – who was in the House at the time – authored the plutonium provision bill. The Aiken Standard reached out to Graham on the issue last week.
Like Hodges, Graham said the idea was to hold the government accountable for the plutonium.
“When it comes to our state, you want to protect it as best you can, and that was just our way of making sure we did and incorporating penalties if the government backed out,” Graham said.
While the agreement was a step in the right direction, Hodges still felt that DOE would rather pay a fine than move the plutonium, which was the bigger issue.
“It was a step in the right direction, but it still didn't solve the problem we had,” he said.
A decade later
Nearly 12 years since Hodges threatened to lie in the road, the government appears to be doing what he feared the most. DOE is in the process of putting the MOX project on hold with no exit plan for the plutonium.
While Graham feels Congress may be able to continue funding for construction, Hodges said he just feels bad for what the government is doing to the Aiken community.
“I really feel for the people of Aiken,” he said. “It's a wonderful community, and they've been a great partner to DOE for a long time. Frankly, they deserve better.”
Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard. He joined the paper in June. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and a graduate of Georgia Southern University. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.