Giffords staff sets up trip to Florida

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

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COLUMBIA -- As news comes of the Obama administration's plans to receive foreign nuclear materials as part of its nonproliferation strategy, leaders in South Carolina said Thursday they are OK with the state being a clearinghouse for the nukes, but only as long as the waste is recycled or isn't here permanently.

"We could lead the world in nuclear re-purposing at the Savannah River Site," South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster said. "We have all the assets for enormous prosperity and jobs in South Carolina, and this is one of them."

McMaster was reacting to an Associated Press report that highly-enriched uranium, or HEU, from Chile has been secretly shipped to the federal facility in South Carolina, as well as to the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Both facilities long have been receiving shipments of the weapons-grade HEU made in the United States; this shipment is the first that wasn't originally made in this country.

At a nonproliferation summit Monday in Washington, President Barack Obama will encourage leaders from 47 countries to work with the U.S. to secure and remove HEU from reactors, as Chile finally did last month.

A grapefruit-sized amount of HEU could create a mushroom cloud of radioactivity and devastate an entire city if detonated. Among the plans is to convert the HEU into a safer fuel that can be resold for nuclear power.

If that's the case, McMaster said he's thrilled for the opportunity for South Carolina to be a part of this cutting-edge nuclear technology.

But that decision hasn't been finalized.

Also on the table are options that could send the material to a long-term storage facility or store it at Savannah River while the government works out a third option, which hasn't been released publicy.

Savannah River stores thousands of tons of other nuclear waste collected from sites around the country, material that is eventually expected to be sent to a long-term facility outside the state, such as the Yucca Mountain site planned for Nevada.

But the Obama administration kicked up a firestorm in South Carolina when it announced plans to scuttle the Yucca project, saying the Energy Department would withdraw licensing applications while a commission studies where the waste now being stored at sites like Savannah River should go.

McMaster, who is seeking South Carolina's Republican nomination for governor, has sought to keep the state from becoming the end of the line for the nuclear trash.

Associated Press writer Bill Poovey contributed to this report.