Originally created 01/06/01

Burmeister: Yucca Mountain Project vital to Georgia



AS I COMMITTED to my constituents of the 114th District during my campaign, I will always attempt to become as knowledgeable as possible on all issues facing our community. Such was the case recently when I toured the Yucca Mountain Project in Nevada on a fact finding mission with a group of legislators from Georgia, South Carolina and Michigan. We were hosted by the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Yucca Mountain is the proposed site for a national repository for nuclear waste, which is important to us in that it will serve as the final storage facility for spent nuclear fuel such as that stored at Plant Vogtle in Burke County and Plant Hatch in south Georgia, as well as the high level, vitrified waste being produced at the Defense Waste Processing Facility at SRS.

The Nuclear Waste Act of 1982 committed the government through the Department of Energy to develop and operate a national repository for high level nuclear waste instead of having the material stored at hundreds of sites across the country. The program and studies have been funded by electric utility customers through an add-on cost to every kilowatt hour of electricity used. To date, the DOE has collected approximately $16 billion primarily from the operators of the nation's more than 100 operating nuclear units, four of which are located in Georgia. To date, the DOE has spent approximately $6 billion on the project. If everything proceeds on the earliest projected schedule, the site would not be ready to accept shipments of high level nuclear waste for permanent storage until 2010.

As you can imagine, the permanent storage of high level nuclear waste would need to be somewhere away from the general population, in an area with no other use to mankind and in an area which was environmentally neutral or inert. After seeing Yucca Mountain, I can think of no other place in the world more suited for this important mission.

Yucca Mountain and the Yucca Mountain Project are located approximately 100 miles from Las Vegas in the most desolate place I have ever seen. There is nothing there except rocks, dirt, sagebrush and tumbleweed. It is part of the Nevada Test Site where some of our nuclear weapons were actually tested, both above ground and below ground. Total rainfall is less than 7 inches a year and little if any of the rainfall penetrates the surface.

The mountain was formed around 13 million years ago from volcanic eruptions and is composed primarily from volcanic ash. Large-scale volcanic eruptions in the area ceased around 7.5 million years ago and the last small eruption occurred about 75,000 years ago. The probability of future volcanic eruptions is essentially non-existent. Because the facility will be underground, any earthquake would have negligible effects.

Upon arriving at the site, after miles and miles of nothing but barren land, we were given site and personal safety briefs. The five-mile tunnel going into the mountain was dug with a 30-foot diameter boring machine and was completed in 1998. We were taken by rail car deep into the mountain to the level (approximately 800-1,000 feet below the surface) where the high level waste will be stored in containers in about 37 miles of tunnels covering approximately 1,100 acres.

We were briefed on and shown the location of the many studies being conducted to prove the acceptability of the mountain for permanent storage of the high level nuclear waste. So far, none have shown any reason, nor is any expected, why Yucca Mountain is not suited for this mission.

There are several important reasons why Yucca Mountain is important to us. Without a repository or interim storage facility, Georgia Power would be forced to build additional spent fuel storage or would be forced to shut down. Once the nuclear fuel is burned in the reactor and the energy is extracted to generate electricity, it is replaced with fresh fuel and the spent fuel must be stored. Georgia Power customers will have to pay for the additional storage facilities if the repository is not open to receive the spent fuel already stored at Plant Vogtle and Plant Hatch. As mentioned before, we have already paid millions of dollars toward the national repository. A potential shutdown of these plants due to lack of additional spent fuel storage causing a shift to higher cost generation resulting in higher electricity rates is unacceptable.

Secondly, the high level liquid waste produced from the nuclear weapons material production process at SRS is being stored in 1 million gallon tanks. Although this has been safe and effective, it is by no means a long term or permanent storage capability. The DWPF converts this liquid waste from these large underground tanks into a vitrified (glass) material that is poured into large stainless steel cylinders. In turn, these cylinders are temporarily stored in a facility adjacent to the DWPF. The cylinders are to be shipped to the repository for permanent storage but if Yucca Mountain does not become the national repository, additional storage at SRS will also be required at a cost of millions of additional taxpayer dollars. It is also unacceptable to have to pay twice for the storage of this high level waste just because there may be further delays in building the repository at Yucca Mountain.

The Yucca Mountain Project and the transportation of nuclear materials are opposed by anti-nuclear groups and others. If they can prevent a national repository for the permanent storage of spent fuel, they could eventually force the shutdown of the nuclear generating facilities across the nation due to lack of on-site storage capacity. Their position is extremely myopic and is not in the best interest of our nation.

As for the transportation of nuclear material and waste, they fail to tell the general public that the DOE and its predecessors have been moving this material safely and securely for over 50 years. Many shipments have crossed Georgia to and from SRS without accident or incident. With the eventual shipments of spent fuel from the Georgia Power reactors and the vitrified waste from SRS, the number of shipments will increase but building on the excellent record, we should expect no adverse impact. The risk to the public will be far less than what we face and accept today for the routine transport of hazardous materials and chemicals on our highways and railways.

IN SUMMARY, the trip to Yucca Mountain was extremely informative to me. It has certainly prepared me to address issues or concerns raised by voters in my district or citizens of Georgia relative to transportation and storage of spent nuclear material and high level waste. The interfacing and discussions with the legislators from other states was very valuable to me on these and many other issues. I look forward to sharing this new knowledge with my colleagues in our state legislature in Atlanta.

(Editor's note: The author is the newly-elected Republican state representative from the 114th District.)