AIKEN, S.C. – A federal judge Tuesday prohibited Gov. Jim Hodges from taking any action to block U.S. Energy Department plutonium shipments, which could begin as early as this weekend.
Last Friday, Hodges dispatched state police to the Savannah River Site near the Georgia state line to begin inspecting vehicles for the radioactive material, which is to be brought in from the closed Rocky Flats weapons facility in Colorado. The governor ordered authorities to prevent anyone from transporting plutonium into South Carolina.
Hodges said he would not block the shipments if ordered by a court but his emergency order would stand until then.
U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie told Hodges on Friday that physical blockades of the plutonium shipments are illegal and present a possible terrorist target, but she did not specifically order Hodges to refrain from blocking roads.
In her ruling Tuesday, Currie blasted the governor for not heeding her warning.
"I took Governor Hodges at his word, and I now see this as a mistake" Currie said. "It is a sad day for South Carolina when the governor ... who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution must be ordered by a court to obey it."
Hodges did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment, but a spokeswoman said he planned a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
The Energy Department had asked Currie for a temporary restraining order, but the judge said the injunction was permanent.
Energy officials said they appreciated the judge's ruling.
"The court's decision reinforces its earlier ruling that the department may ship plutonium from its Rocky Flats, Colo., facility to the Savannah River Site, and we intend to proceed with those shipments," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.
Agency spokesman Joe Davis said the shipments could begin as early as Saturday. "We're in the process of getting them ready," he said.
The decision is the latest development in the lawsuit Hodges filed last month to prevent Energy officials from transporting the weapons-grade plutonium to South Carolina. The Democratic governor, who is up for re-election this fall, has said the material poses too many health and environmental risks and threatened to lie down in the road if necessary to block the trucks.
The Energy Department wants to move six metric tons of plutonium to SRS as part of the agency's effort to clean up and close the Rocky Flats facility.
Energy officials say the radioactive material will be converted into fuel for nuclear reactors, but Hodges worries the conversion program will never be funded and the plutonium will be stored permanently in South Carolina.
Last Thursday, Currie rejected Hodges' arguments that the Energy Department was in violation of federal environmental policy and opened the door for shipments to begin immediately.
Hodges has appealed that ruling to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.