A panel of top nuclear storage experts offered mixed views to a congressional panel on Thursday regarding the viability of Yucca Mountain as a preferred site for the waste.

But U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-3rd District and a member of the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee, took the opportunity to reinforce his support for the controversial plan.

“Ratepayers in this country were sold a bill of goods. Nuclear waste sits at commercial sites in 121 different locations around the country, on the shore of Lake Erie in Ohio, on the shores of Lake Keowee in South Carolina, on the shores of the Savannah River in Georgia, and we know that we’ve had leaks in Illinois. The American people and the states don’t trust the federal government to ever get to this point, because there are too much politics involved,” Duncan said near the end of a 2-hour meeting of the Environment and Climate Change subcommittee.

Duncan has emerged as a vocal proponent for construction of the mothballed repository in the Nevada desert. Last month, he was among a coalition of lawmakers who introduced legislation that would allocate $161 million for pre-construction costs related to the development of Yucca Mountain.

Identified in 1987 as a central storehouse for America’s nuclear waste, Congress approved the project in 2002. But federal funding dried up in 2011 under the Obama administration.

President Trump in his 2017 budget appropriated $120 million to resume licensing activities at the site.

Right now, spent nuclear material is stored at 121 locations in 39 states — including the Oconee Nuclear Station, VC Summer and Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Western lawmakers have long opposed attempts to build out Yucca Mountain. On March 5, members of the state’s federal delegation introduced the Nuclear Waste Informed Consent Act, aimed at blocking the storage of nuclear waste without public approval.

Though not in his district, Duncan said the large amounts of nuclear waste being stored at the Department of Energy-controlled Savannah River Site – which spreads across 310 square miles in Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties – presents a threat to nearby population centers.

With 8,000 tons of vitrified waste – material that’s been converted to glass – and 35 million gallons of liquid byproduct ready for transportation to Yucca Mountain, Duncan said South Carolina officials have a vested interested in the project.

“They started this mission over 20 years ago and have since been waiting for us to license a permanent repository. Until Yucca Mountain is licensed, the Savannah River site will continue to be the custodians of waste, which was never an intended purpose of the site,” Duncan said.

Between 1987 and 2016, South Carolina ratepayers have contributed $3.1 billion to the DOE’s nuclear waste fund – which has a total value of about $44.5 billion.

“And we’ve got nothing for it,” Duncan said on Thursday. “It’s time to move forward, and let’s let the ratepayers of South Carolina and other states get what they have been paying for.”

Lake Barrett, former head of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management for the federal Department of Energy, called Yucca Mountain the “most studied piece of land in the world” and urged lawmakers to centralize the storage of spent nuclear waste.

“Speaking as a grandparent, as well as an engineer, it is simply irresponsible to saddle our children, grandchildren and future generations with spent nuclear fuel sitting in thousands of canisters in dozens of temporary storage locations scattered across the country with seemingly endless financial liabilities with no place to go,” Barrett said. “It is time to act to remove spent fuel from the coasts of Maine to the coasts of California and from our Great Lakes and river systems in between. It is time to step up and take responsibility for decisions we made six decades ago to produce nuclear fuel and three decades ago to develop a geologic repository for the ultimate disposition of that spent nuclear fuel.”

One of the largest hurdles in moving forward with plans to activate Yucca Mountain has been opposition from Nevada’s congressional delegation, which has opposed the move since its inception.

In a June 7 letter to Congress, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said the state will continue its fight.

“I said in my State of the State address in January that not one ounce of nuclear waste will reach Yucca Mountain while I’m governor. I fully intend to keep my promise to the people of Nevada and fight against any attempts to restart the failed Yucca Mountain program. If your committee is truly interested in fixing our nation’s broken nuclear waste program, my staff and I, and Nevada’s congressional delegation, would be happy to meet with you and explore constructive alternatives,” he wrote.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.