Savannah River Site could help solve the nation's nuclear waste challenges, but it should not become a permanent dumping ground, members of a national study panel were told Friday.
"I'm not going to let my state, or our sister state, be left holding the bag without one hell of a fight," U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham told members of the Blue Ribbon Commission.
The panel, created by the Obama administration, was asked to develop new policies for disposing of high-level defense waste and spent nuclear fuel.
During a day-long meeting in Augusta, the group heard from an array of speakers, many of whom criticized the government's controversial decision to abandon its Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, which was designed as a permanent repository for 70,000 tons of spent fuel from the nation's 104 commercial reactors.
"It was a short-sighted decision with devastating consequences," Graham told the commission, which is co-chaired by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
Canceling Yucca Mountain after spending more than $10 billion in nuclear waste fund fees collected from generators of spent fuel is unfair, he said.
Georgia's contribution to that fund amounts to about $716 million, while South Carolina interests have paid more than $1.3 billion.
"You've taken $1.3 billion in fees from South Carolina to build a hole that we're not going to use," Graham said. "We either want our money back, or we want to use that hole."
The absence of a clear path for spent nuclear fuel will make it harder for the nation to add more nuclear power plants that are needed to reduce America's dependence on Mideast oil, Graham said.
France, he said, gets 82 percent of its power from nuclear sources, while the U.S. percentage is barely 20 percent. "Surely, we can be as bold as the French," he told commissioners, adding that the government's failure to find a solution for waste is a major impediment to the public's willingness to move forward with more nuclear power plants.
Scowcroft acknowledged there are major political challenges in solving the nation's nuclear waste disposal problems.
"There is a feeling that the government keeps changing the rules," he said. "One of the problems is, how do we establish a system in which people can have confidence that it won't all be changed in the next election."
Manuel Bettencourt, speaking on behalf of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board, said Savannah River Site has significant resources -- including H Canyon -- that could assist in research and development of ways to reprocess nuclear wastes.
H Canyon is the nation's sole remaining facility where certain types of plutonium, highly enriched uranium and aluminum-clad spent nuclear fuels can be processed for disposal.
Bettencourt also praised the Blue Ribbon Commission for the public process by which it is conducting its mission.
In contrast, he said, the public was not comparably privy to why the Yucca Mountain project was abruptly labeled as not technically or politically feasible.
The concept of reprocessing, possibly at SRS, was also supported by Clint Wolfe, the executive director of the pro-nuclear Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness.
Although coal and gas emissions threaten the world's water and air, nuclear energy has the potential to provide a clean alternative, he said.
"This country knows where all of its nuclear waste is located," he said. "It's safe, it's guarded and it's never hurt anybody."
Environmentalists, however, fear reprocessing programs could bring more dangerous nuclear waste to South Carolina.
"We're all concerned about future jobs, but reprocessing is not a good idea," said Tom Clements, the nuclear campaign director for Friends of the Earth.
The Energy Department's Environmental Management arm, he contended, is working out of the public eye to advance such programs.
"It's more about money going to special interests, and to bring future missions to the site," he said. "Their mission is cleanup, and they need to get back to that mission."
Charles Utley, an Augusta resident representing the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, told commission members they should work toward a nuclear-free future for the nation and urged them to consider the plight of people who live near nuclear sites.
"I'm here to speak on behalf of those who live at ground zero," he said. "There are better alternatives."
Solar and wind power, for example, have great potential as clean energy sources that will help ease dependence on foreign oil.
Friday's meeting at the Augusta Marriott Riverwalk Hotel followed a tour of Savannah River Site on Thursday.
The commission's next destination is New Mexico, where members will tour the Energy Department's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and hold more public meetings in Carlsbad and Albuquerque.