On January 7, a chartered bus with 34 people onboard left Asheville before sunup. The destination: a meeting of the federal Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (aka, the Commission). This was the only scheduled meeting in the region and the bus riders were well prepared to argue against two issues. First, WNC being used as a possible thoroughfare for transport of nuclear waste. And second, the possibility of Sandy Mush being placed back on the table as a possible repository for reprocessed nuclear waste.
The original site as a possible repository was Nevada’s Yucca Mountain region. That site was selected in 1987. Despite more than $9 billion dollars being spent on developing the Yucca Mountain location, the site was shut down earlier this year without having received a single barrel of nuclear waste.
When the original site in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain region was shelved, the town of Aiken, SC and Augusta GA volunteered to take the country’s high level nuclear waste for recycling – not storage. When the Aiken/Augusta regions made this move, two potential issues were raised for western North Carolina. How will the waste get to South Carolina and where will the 99% that cannot be recycled be deposited?
Rail, road and water are all possible solutions for transport. If the waste is moved by road, then I40 and I26 seem to be preferred routes. In this regard, some see the widening of US 25 as being part of a master plan to also use this route for transport.
David Ireland, a member of the local Green Party, and an attendee of the Commission is convinced that roads in the area are being upgraded to meet the standards required for hauling nuclear waste. “NIRS (Nuclear Information Resource Services), about three years ago, released a road map that shows where nuclear waste would be transported,” says Ireland. “Every single map shows Asheville and western North Carolina at the crossroads.”
The site closest to South Carolina which has been considered in the past for disposing of the 99% unrecyclable waste is Sandy Mush in Leicester.
People who were living in WNC in 1986 can recall the vocal opposition that was heard when the federal government announced it was studying the feasibility of burying much of the nuclear waste within 14 miles of downtown Marshall.
At that time, the governor, house representatives and even the late Sen. Jesse Helms argued against the plan. Several area residents also met with Vice President George Bush to argue against putting the dump here.
In April of that year, so many people signed up to speak against the proposed dump site at a public hearing that the hearing lasted nine full hours.
A 105 square mile patch of land that sprawls over parts of Madison, Buncombe and Haywood counties was one of twelve spots east of the Mississippi that were under consideration for storage of nuclear fuel waste.
A look through old newspaper accounts show that the DOE was convinced that the 2 mile thick layer of granite lying below Sandy Mush was the answer for long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. Opponents, though, voiced concern that the rock was broken and the resulting ground water seepage would corrode the metal storage cases, causing them to leak.
Following a strong public outcry, the DOE announced in May 1986 that the twelve proposed sites were “postponed indefinitely” resulting in the federal government deciding to build a storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said Yucca Mountain is not a workable option for waste disposal because of such factors as the difficulty of securing permanent water rights in the face of Nevada’s opposition and the prospect for storing the waste above ground in dry casks for more than 100 years.”
In 2009, Mary Olson, a WNC resident and environmentalist who has studied nuclear power, wrote an opinion piece in the Mountain Xpress suggesting that the proposal to bury nuclear waste in Sandy Mush could be returning to the federal government’s drawing board.
“That proposal was only shelved, not canceled when the Nevada Yucca site was selected,” Olson wrote in a Dec. 8, 2008, letter to the Asheville Citizen-Times. “An Eastern repository is due for reconsideration by Congress in 2010.”
Olson went on to say that the Commission will write the policies on the disposal of nuclear waste, among other things.
“The Obama administration is pursuing the idea of sending the waste that would have gone to Yucca to South Carolina for processing,” Olson said. “If they do that, then Sandy Mush is one of two sites closest to the Department of Energy site where the ‘recycling’ of the waste would be done.”
That, however, is speculation. The Commission still hasn’t established policies to determine the choice sites let alone chosen any sites for the nuclear waste. Regardless, the need to find a burial site for the spent nuclear fuel is on top of the to-do list. The Commission is scheduled to submit a draft report to the Secretary of Energy by July 2011, and a final report by January 2012.
While the issues of transporting and storing nuclear waste has only been of a primary concern to western North Carolina for roughly the last 25 years, opponents of nuclear power and the government’s nuclear policies have been speaking out long before Three Mile Island.
Ryan “Ned” Doyle, host of “News From BackHome” (WNCW 88.7 FM, Spindale, North Carolina) has been living off the grid for about 15 years now. “The only good nuclear power is 93 million miles away,” says Doyle.
One issue many pro-nuclear individuals hammer on is the economic benefits to a community. “That just isn’t so,” says Doyle. “Anyone that claims an area benefits economically by having a nuclear reactor or a repository iin their area is misinformed,” he says. “There might be some quick job creation during the initial building of the facility, but once the facility is finished, the jobs dry up.”
One question that Doyle, Ireland and the other 32 people on the bus have: “When will the future of our children and planet be worth more than short term profits?”
For all of us, it’s a question that needs to be answered soon.
Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist living in Asheville, North Carolina. He has traveled the world documenting the tears, joys, laughter and lives of people everywhere. He currently focuses his attention and his camera on people, places and things in the United States. A portion of the proceeds from each photo shoot is donated to organizations that help the homeless in the communities in which he works. You can see more of his photography by clicking here.