Originally created 06/11/02

Sealed records draw media suit



COLUMBIA - Several media companies including The Associated Press have sued to keep a judge from sealing records in Gov. Jim Hodges' lawsuit to block federal shipments of weapons-grade plutonium to South Carolina.

The U.S. District Court will hear arguments on the motion Thursday in Aiken before taking up Mr. Hodges' case.

The Energy Department, in its motion to seal the documents, said the information should be protected from public view under the Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information provision of federal law.

The documents were described by the agency as pertaining to the long-term storage of nuclear material and structural analysis of the buildings that would house the material.

The media companies argue that the material does not qualify as controlled information. That would require the department to meet a First Amendment standard for keeping the material from public view, media attorney Jay Bender wrote in his brief.

Mr. Bender argued that the description mentions nothing about production, use or transportation of nuclear material, which would be required to protect the documents under the controlled information rule.

More than a dozen newspapers, along with the AP, the state press association and nearly half a dozen broadcasters have joined the lawsuit, said Bill Rogers, the executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.

"It's important that a judge decide what is politics and what is national security," Mr. Rogers said.

"It's part of our job to be the watchdog," said John Cottingham, the vice president for Media General broadcasting operations in South Carolina, including his home station of WSPA in Spartanburg. "But it's even more important in this case."

Mr. Cottingham, who is also the president of the South Carolina Broadcasters Association, said the potential wide-ranging effect of the case "makes it a slam-dunk to invest the money to ... prevent this case from being sealed."

Gov. Jim Hodges is challenging the Energy Department's plan to ship the plutonium to South Carolina, arguing that the agency should agree to a legally binding schedule to remove the radioactive material from the state.

The federal government wants to begin shipping plutonium from a nuclear complex in Colorado to the Savannah River Site near Aiken as early as this week. Mr. Hodges worries the plutonium might never be reprocessed into fuel and might stay in the state indefinitely.

The Energy Department has said the shipments are necessary to fulfill the requirements of treaties with the former Soviet Union that call for both sides to neutralize the plutonium used in Cold War-era nuclear weapons.



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