Air Force to replace nuclear generators

Diesel-solar hybrids to be used instead

Posted: Monday, July 16, 2001

FAIRBANKS - The U.S. Air Force plans to remove 10 nuclear-powered generators from Burnt Mountain, about 200 miles northwest of Fairbanks and 50 miles south of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

State officials first learned about the generators, installed in the early 1970s, about nine years ago after a wildfire came within 100 yards of the unstaffed devices.

Air Force officials say the nuclear-powered generators, which provide power for the Burnt Mountain Seismic Array Observatory, are extremely safe. But Native groups in the area asked they be removed.

"The (villages) just want them out of their territory, they don't think they should be there," said Bob Childers, an adviser to the Gwich'in Steering Committee. "Nobody else has to have them in their backyard."

The unstaffed observatory uses seismometers and other equipment as part of a network to monitor international compliance with nuclear test ban treaties. The facility is on designated military land along the boundary of the Arctic and Yukon Flats national wildlife refuges.

The Air Force says it will replace the nuclear devices with diesel-solar hybrid generators, possibly by next summer.

The highly radioactive material inside the generators is called strontium 90, a metal that can cause serious health problems. Strontium 90's radioactive decay produces heat, which the generators convert into electricity. The radioactive material is heavily shielded and the generators were developed and tested so they can safely withstand extreme stresses, including a forest fire, Air Force officials say.

The 1992 wildfire that burned 35,000 acres in the area shone a spotlight on the Burnt Mountain nuclear devices. The fire damaged some data cables at the facility, but firefighters controlled the blaze and no radiation leaked from the generators.

Nevertheless, leaders from seven villages within 150 miles of Burnt Mountain - Arctic Village, Venetie, Fort Yukon, Chalkyitsik, Beaver and Birch Creek - called for the immediate removal of the generators.

"At this time there is a Native allotment only a few miles to the east, and at least two traplines right on the mountain," Gwich'in Steering Committee member Jonathon Solomon of Fort Yukon wrote to the Air Force in 1998. "People hunt caribou there too."

U.S. Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski of Alaska asked the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment to look at alternative methods of powering Burnt Mountain. Tests showed the diesel-solar hybrids were the best choice, the Air Force said.

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