Remember the nuclear waste debates of the 1980s? Remember the panic after Three Mile Island, a nuclear power station on an island in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Penn., which after a reactor core meltdown in 1979 released highly radioactive gas into the environment? Remember the protests and pickets? Remember how the consensus in the country regarding the clear dangers of nuclear power led to the cancelation of all new nuclear power projects for decades?
Some in Western North Carolina, those who are able to remember all the way back to those glory years of muscle cars and Reaganomics, may even recall Sandy Mush and a local protest campaign to keep nuclear waste from being trucked into our mountains and dumped here. Farmers, business owners and local governments all united in sending a big, loud “NO” to Washington officials who were considering locations in the region as potentially acceptable sites for a national nuclear waste depository. At the time, it seemed the protests had worked. Nationally, nuclear power was on the wane. Washington regulators turned their gaze west to sites like Yucca Mountain in Nevada as potential memory holes for the nation's toxic and ever-lasting nuclear waste, and most folks in Western North Carolina happily forgot that their own back yard had once been a prime candidate.
Mary Olson hasn’t forgotten, however. And Olson, the regional director for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), an organization that advocates for a “non-nuclear future,” has some bad news: The past has come back to haunt us.
At a recent “Eco-Friday” forum at Franklin’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Olson informed the small audience that, with the current administration's resurgent emphasis on nuclear power as a means to reduce the country's dependence on fossil fuels and with Yucca Mountain having been abandoned as a viable nuke dump, all the old plans are back on the table and being seriously reconsidered.
“We’re back to where we started; it's the same story,” said Olson, a biologist and biochemist by training who has worked with NIRS since 1991. This week the first draft recommendations of a federal commission on nuclear energy are due out. Olson cautioned to be prepared for more flashbacks to come.
Thirty years ago, Western North Carolina, with its solid granite bedrock, was identified as a possible site for a national nuclear waste repository. The community of Sandy Mush in Leicester (just 23.5 miles from the Buncombe County Courthouse in downtown Asheville) was one of twelve sites in the country that were seriously being studied by the U.S. Department of Energy.
It was only later that Yucca Mountain became the main focus of federal planners, even though there were many indicators that the site was geologically unsound. The site was crisscrossed with four major fault lines, the porous volcanic bedrock was far from ideal and in the first three years of studying the site, more than 200 earthquakes were recorded registering over 2.5 on the Richter Scale. Twenty years and $10 billion later, the Obama Administration finally conceded that a facility at the site would be destined to leak radiation and decided to walk away from it.
“Our sites are fabulous by comparison,” says Olson, speaking strictly in geological and technical terms.
In January 2010, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced the formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, part of the Obama Administration's stated commitment to restarting the country's nuclear industry. The commission was tasked with developing recommendations for “a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation's used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.” That includes figuring out what to do with all the waste from all the active and decommissioned reactors built in the country since the 1950s, as well as waste from the nuclear weapons program of the Cold War.
In its first weeks, the Commission, made up of 16 pro-nuclear advocates, was presented with a history of the nuclear waste issue in the country. However, instead of all 12 of the previously proposed sites, the presentation focused on only three: Sandy Mush among them.
The technical specifications of Sandy Mush and the surrounding region is not the only thing that makes it an ideal dump for 60 years of nuclear waste. Another charge of the Blue Ribbon Commission is to give recommendations concerning “fuel recycling” (the extraction of plutonium from the highly radioactive waste or “spent fuel” of a nuclear reactor). The most likely, indeed, the only currently proposed location for a “recycling center” in the country is at so-called Savannah River Site in Augusta, Ga., a former production site for weapons grade plutonium.
As Olson notes, the Southeast is the epicenter of the federal push to revive the nuclear energy sector. On Jan. 7, 2011, the Commission met in Augusta and heard from nuclear boosters in the area keen to develop what is being styled as an “energy park” on the DOE Savanah River Site. The facility, already being called the “U.S. Energy Freedom Center,” would support research, development and demonstration of renewable and alternative energy sources, but its primary focus would be reprocessing or recycling of highly radioactive fuel waste.
Asheville just happens to be situated at what the NIRS calls the “Nuclear Crossroads,” where I-40 and I-26 meet in Western North Carolina, and what would likely become one of the main corridors for transporting nuclear waste from sites around the country headed to the Savanah River Site.
“We’re talking not just hundreds of shipments, but thousands and possibly tens of thousand over at least two or three decades,” Olson explained. “And if they build new reactors, as they are planning to do for the first time in 30 years, it would be continuously.”
And once there, only one percent of the spent fuel can be reprocessed into plutonium to be used in theoretical “breeder reactors” that have never proven successful in other countries which have pursued the technology. The remaining 99 percent of the millions of tons of radioactive material would still need a permanent repository (with containment integrity for hundreds of thousands of years).
The closest acceptable site? Yep. Right here.
There is quality granite all through the Appalachian chain, but WNC is special. And as they say, “location, location, location.”
Nukes: Who needs 'em?
According to Olson, the country has reached a crossroad and has several big decisions to make. “Do we build more reactors? Do we shut down the ones we have? Do we keep the waste where it has been produced and where it has been kept for decades? Or do we start moving it around?”
There has not been a new nuclear reactor built in the country since the late 80s. The nation is operating a fleet of reactor that are all more than 34 years old, most built in the same era as (and a few are identical to) the reactors in Fukushima, Japan, which were involved in what some now consider the worst nuclear catastrophe in history.
Nationwide, nuclear power accounts for about 20 percent of the electricity generated. In North Carolina, it's about 30 percent; in South Carolina, the most nuclear dependent state in the country, it accounts for more than 50 percent. The nuclear weapons complex, medical research and all other industrial applications combined generate only about 5 percent of all nuclear radiation in the country. The remaining 95 percent is a by-product of energy production.
But as Olson points out, the options are many. By simply eliminating the energy wasted by inefficient houses lacking proper insulation, by upgrading our appliances and taking other common sense efficiency measures, the country could cut its energy needs in half.
“This country could do everything we are doing today – no conservation, no giving up anything – on half the energy we are currently using,” Olson said. “Or we could run an economy twice as big.”
A serious investment in alternative, sustainable energy development would not only further shrink the pie, but would potentially transform the economy of the nation. Olson noted that the country passed a historic milestone recently in which for the first time the cost of electricity per kilowatt generated by solar cells dropped below the cost of nuclear energy. And that is by the industry's own measures.
Indeed, nuclear power has become one of the most expensive sources of energy that exists, requiring massive mining efforts and processing to keep the reactors stocked with uranium fuel. And the externalized costs are incalculable: Billions of gallons of water used in mining and the reactor condensers; contamination of ground water; potential disasters; and the necessity of a security force to guard facilities and waste, security needs that would only increase if the country begins mass-production of plutonium.
The monster awakens ... and the monster fighters
These are the things that people are beginning to recall about the antinuke movement of the ’80s – Fukushima certainly jarred some memories. In recent months, the WNC network of activists has reawakened. More than 30 residents of the Asheville area attended the Blue Ribbon Commission's meeting in Augusta in January to voice their opposition to the Savannah River Site.
On July 15, as reported by Mountain Xpress, some 50 protestors gathered in Pritchard Park in downtown Asheville in a march on the Federal Building. Organized by local groups, including NIRS, Katuah Earth First!, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, the Mountain Protectors Campaign and the New South Network of War Resisters, activists carrying signs and a large nuclear waste cask, marched with the message that storage or transportation of nuclear waste through WNC will not be accepted.
In March, the Madison County Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution opposing transportation of nuclear waste through the county or its storage at the proposed Sandy Mush site. The resolution notes, among other points, that “the development of a storage site at Sandy Mush would destroy the agricultural and residential nature of the area.” It also notes that upon leaving the commercial enterprises that created it, nuclear spent fuel becomes “the financial and disposal responsibility of the American taxpayer.”
Still, there are powerful interests supporting development of the Southeast as a nuclear center and some indications that decisions at the highest levels are being made without the full knowledge of citizens. The Third Infantry Division Highway (a.k.a. I-3) network under development as part of a national homeland security policy links the entire region from the coast of Georgia to the nuclear research facility in Oakridge, Tenn., including most likely a corridor connecting the Savannah River Site and WNC.
Supporters of a reprocessing facility in the region, which include many from the business community, local chambers of commerce, and even colleges, say that it would be an economic boon.
“They want money and jobs, of course,” said Olson. “And yes, it could bring jobs. But we have to consider, it won't necessarily be more jobs, just different jobs, because many of the occupations we have now would go away. Farming, hiking, water sports, crafts, festivals, arts are all part of our current economy. Don't we have a right to protect that?”