Air Force to replace nuclear generators with diesel-solar hybrids

Posted: Monday, July 16, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Almost a decade after a wildfire raged near the border of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Air Force is planning to remove nuclear-powered generators from Burnt Mountain.

Following the fire north of Fort Yukon, state officials were surprised to learn that since the early 1970s the Air Force had unmanned nuclear devices at Burnt Mountain. The fire came to within 100 yards of them.

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

The nuclear-powered generators, which the Air Force says are extremely safe, provide power for the Burnt Mountain Seismic Array Observatory.

The unmanned observatory uses seismometers and other equipment as part of a network to monitor international compliance with nuclear test ban treaties. The facility is about 200 miles north of Fairbanks, on designated military land along the boundary of the Arctic and Yukon Flats national wildlife refuges.

The Air Force says it will replace the 10 nuclear devices with diesel-solar hybrid generators. The replacement will not happen until at least next summer.

Throughout the years the Air Force has maintained that the nuclear devices, known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators, are highly efficient for remote operations as well as being quite safe.

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 highly radioactive material inside the generators is called strontium 90, a metal that can cause serious health problems. Strontium's radioactive decay produces heat, which the generators convert into electricity.

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--Arctic Village, Venetie, Fort Yukon, Chalkyitsik, Beaver and Birch Creek--called for the immediate removal of the generators. The villages are all within 150 miles of Burnt Mountain.

''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.

The Air Force pursued alternative power sources. First in 1996 a propane-based system was tested at Burnt Mountain, according to the Air Force, but it proved unreliable during the extreme cold.

The Air Force was finally satisfied that it had a reliable enough alternative power source after testing a diesel-solar hybrid at the site. During the tests the hybrid prototypes were used to replace two of the 10 nuclear devices at Burnt Mountain. This year the Air Force revealed its plan to replace all 10 generators with diesel-solar hybrids.

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