Six Tons Of Plutonium Starts
Trip Across US

JACKSON, SC -- A heavily guarded shipment of plutonium on its way here is part a national debate over transporting nuclear material in the new age of terrorism.

But in this small town outside a sprawling complex built in 1950 to make Cold War-era bombs, six tons of plutonium barely raise an eyebrow. The Energy Department is shipping the radioactive material 1,500 miles to the Savannah River site here from a defunct weapons center in Rocky Flats, Colo.

''Most people here don't even talk about it,'' says Alan Teuton, 18, a clerk at Jackson Supermarket. ''And believe me, people here usually love to gossip about anything and everything.''

The Energy Department, citing national security, is tight-lipped about the shipment that could have left Colorado on Saturday at the earliest. The plutonium will be shipped over 18 months.

''I cannot stress how secure these shipments are,'' says Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis. ''This is not a U-Haul.''

The federal government plans to build a $3.8 billion processing plant at Savannah River to convert the weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.

South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges filed a lawsuit to stop the shipments but lost. He has appealed, and oral arguments are set for July 10. He fears the government will abandon the conversion proposal and leave his state a plutonium ''dumping ground.''

Some details about the shipping came in the Energy Department's response to the lawsuit:

* The plutonium, in both powdered and metal form, is inside airtight metal canisters enclosed within larger steel barrels.

Plutonium is deadliest when inhaled, and even minute amounts can cause cancer. Environmentalists fear a canister leak or security breach could cause the substance to be dispersed.

* Fire can engulf the trucks without damage to the cargo.

* The trucks are under satellite surveillance and guarded by armed federal agents authorized to use deadly force. Drivers go no faster than 55 mph, won't travel in bad weather and stop only at government facilities.

The destination is a 310-square-mile site along the Savannah River on the border of South Carolina and Georgia. The site is one of South Carolina's largest employers, with 13,800 workers. Outcries about the plutonium are more common outside this southwestern slice of the state.

''Once that plutonium is brought here, it's going to stay forever,'' says Del Isham, director of the South Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club. ''We don't want to be the guinea pigs.''

About one in five residents in the four South Carolina counties adjacent to the complex are dependent on the Savannah River site for their economic well-being. In a survey of local residents, one-third ranked jobs as the most important issue surrounding the facility. About 6% ranked contamination as their top concern, according to university researchers working with the site.

''I see how they handle nuclear material out there. I think there is no better place to put it,'' says Tom Burke, 44, a computer specialist at the facility.

But James Ellis, 76, says the federal government hasn't given enough guarantee that the plutonium will ever leave. ''I agree 100% with the governor about that,'' says Ellis, who worked for 13 years as a chemical operator at Savannah River.

Hodges, a Democrat who faces a tough re-election in November, trumpets his fight in TV ads.

But in Jackson, his earlier promise to lie in the street to block shipments turned him into a punch line. ''We have a name for the governor here: Speed Bump,'' jokes Patty Baldy, 32.

Hodges' supporters say the Bush administration is pushing to remove the plutonium from Rocky Flats to boost the re-election of U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, a Republican.

In Jackson, residents say they trust the expertise at Savannah River. It was originally created as one of two U.S. spots to manufacture plutonium. Some 34 million gallons of radioactive sludge are stored in underground tanks. Bringing in more plutonium to convert to nuclear fuel could mean more jobs.

''You've got a lot of people here who wish the governor would shut his mouth,'' Ellis says. ''They're afraid the government will get mad and shut the whole process down.''