Six commissioners and co-chairman Brent Scowcroft of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future began a two-day trip to the Southeast on Thursday with a visit to a former nuclear weapons complex near Aiken, S.C. It comes amid deep uncertainty over how the United States should dispose of nuclear waste.
While President Barack Obama supports more nuclear power to meet the country's energy needs, his administration pulled its support from a plan to store radioactive waste in a ridge of volcanic rock called Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
"The wavering federal commitment has created a crisis in confidence in the federal government's ability to solve the problem," James Miller III, CEO of the Southern Nuclear Operating Co., said in prepared testimony. The Southern Co. and its partners are trying to win permission to break ground on the first nuclear plant in a generation at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro.
The itinerary of Scowcroft's delegation shows the dilemmas created by radioactive waste in the southeast: On Thursday, the commissioners toured the 310-square-mile Savannah River Site, which once produced the plutonium and tritium for nuclear bombs during the Cold War.
Federal officials have agreed to clean and close underground tanks holding 37 million gallons of waste, but they don't have a final resting place for it. Scowcroft has repeatedly said his commission will not pick a repository site.
South Carolina and Washington state, which has the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, has sued to keep the Obama administration from abandoning Yucca Mountain.
Environmental watchdog groups in the southeast are warning the panel against reprocessing nuclear waste, which has been proposed at the Savannah River Site. During reprocessing, plutonium is extracted from spent fuel rods and used to create fresh fuel.
Tom Clements, Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends Of The Earth, said he will testify at a commission hearing Friday against reprocessing. He argues it would create new radioactive byproducts that could leak into the environment and lead to the proliferation of nuclear materials.
Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter restricted the reprocessing of fuel rods for fear that the plutonium taken from them could be used to build a nuclear bomb. By the time President Ronald Reagan reversed that decision, the nuclear energy market was contracting and there was little demand for reprocessing.
Clements said allowing the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain increases the odds that reprocessing of nuclear waste could start at the Savannah River Site.
"They're not going to be able to bring anything in here unless they claim there's a way out," said Clements, who supports keeping nuclear waste at secure onsite facilities until a permanent solution is found.
A proposed nuclear building boom would add to the unresolved problem. Utility companies have submitted plans to build more than a dozen nuclear power plants. Projects at Plant Vogtle and Plant Summer in Fairfield County, S.C., could be among the first to receive approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Southern Co. has paid more than $1 billion to the government as required by law to support a site for long-term nuclear storage, company spokesman Carrie Phillips said. Despite an agreement with the government to take the waste, spent fuel rods are still sitting at the firm's nuclear plants in Georgia and Alabama.
"It was never intended that spent fuel would remain on site," Phillips said. "Nor was it intended that it would remain the responsibility of the company."