It always sounds like a good idea in Wyoming to have the state in charge of a program, rather than the federal government. And Wyoming has long talked about going through the process to take over monitoring uranium mining and milling from the federal government.
The move is called ‘taking primacy” from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or becoming an “agreement state.”
The agreement gives the state the power, and the responsibility, of monitoring and permitting uranium production within its borders.
A majority of states actually already are agreement states
— 37 of them, in fact, although Wyoming leads the country in uranium production, producing twice what the second state [Nebraska] produces.
But some cold water has been thrown on the primacy idea from an expert commissioned by the Legislature to investigate how practical it would be to take over for the feds.
The researcher hired by the state Department of Environmental Quality to investigate the idea gave legislators a warning recently that the state would have to hire very well-paid regulators with the technical know-how to evaluated complicated uranium proposals.
“That’s a significant investment if uranium prices drop and Wyoming mines stop producing,” researcher Christopher Pugsley said.
In other words, the state would have to recruit and pay very well for employees whose workload may depend on the fickle uranium market, where demand can be swung by out-of-the-blue incidents such as the tidal wave that damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011. While producers still see growing demand, renewed worries about the safety of nuclear power plants have lowered demand projections and throttled down uranium prices.
The same dive in uranium prices happened after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. After that accident, no new nuclear power plants were built in the U.S. for 30 years.
Why take primacy?
Rep. Dave Miller, R-Riverton, wanted the study when he became convinced that the federal government was too slow in handling permitting requests from Wyoming.
He felt that Wyoming had lost out on boom prices for uranium several years ago because of what he considered delays in the permitting.
From the federal point of view, it’s a matter of resources because, “The boom in applications started in 2007, the economy turned in 2008, and we are under budget constraints like every other agency,” said NRC spokesman Dave McIntyre.
He said that two full permits have been issued in Wyoming since 2007.
But now the legislators will have to look into their crystal ball and decide if they want to make the financial investment and take the five years it typically requires for states to draw up plans and get them approved by the NRC.
The state official tasked with getting answer for the Legislature was pretty direct in her recommendation.
Nancy Nuttbrock said, “The staffing requirements are significant … and the skill sets required with those staffing positions are not easily sought, retained or paid for.”
She outright told the legislators that it was her suggestion that they not draft any bills in 2014 to take over uranium regulation. And the expert who was at the meeting?
He said he agreed with Nuttbrock 110 percent.
Pugsley will give the Legislature his final report Dec. 1. It will present case studies of states with uranium regulations.
The staff and budgeting at the NRC will be included in the report to help legislators decide whether to go forward with the plan to take over regulation of uranium
But the preliminary finding was not ambiguous. It was discouraging in its description of the time needed to accomplish primacy and the costs, all in the face of an uncertain uranium market.
When the Legislature asks for an outside opinion, it would be wise to heed what is reported back, even if the news is bad.