A Wyoming committee will gather in Casper this week to consider temporarily storing spent nuclear fuel in the state to help offset declining coal revenues.
Lawmakers quietly voted in July to form the Spent Fuel Rods Subcommittee to explore the idea. Chaired by Casper Republican Sen. Jim Anderson, the committee meets for the first time 10 a.m. Thursday at the Ramkota Hotel. A lineup of top officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy will discuss the feasibility of such a controversial measure.
The meeting will include testimony from William J. Boyle, the department’s acting deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition, as well as the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and two top officials in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who will provide a high-level overview of their regulatory framework.
Pete Davis, a retired nuclear physicist living in Sheridan, will also offer testimony.
“We’re expecting a wide-ranging conversation,” Anderson said Tuesday in an interview. “We’re hoping to hear answers to a lot of our questions, including how many units do we store, what’s the time frame we’re keeping them, how we get them here ... those types of questions.”
Anderson said Thursday’s conversation is intended to be of an informational nature and may result in a presentation to the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee — which Anderson co-chairs — for further consideration in October. However, public attention has already been high. In the past few weeks, Anderson said he has received at least a dozen phone calls either for or against the proposal, as well as more than 30 emails speaking out against storing spent nuclear fuel in Wyoming.
“I’ve heard from all the people who don’t want it brought here, no matter what the facts are,” Anderson said. “They don’t want nuclear in Wyoming. But this is where that uranium came from — we mined a lot of it right here in Wyoming. So whether they like it or not, we already have it here.”
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Nationally, critics of nuclear energy have long questioned the feasibility and safety of storing its byproducts. These concerns particularly include the storage of spent nuclear fuel rods that, while no longer useful for energy production, are still highly radioactive and require specialized facilities to store.
However, several states exploring the potential for storing spent nuclear fuel within their borders — such as Wyoming, New Mexico and Texas — see high revenue potential and little risk in the prospect. According to a briefing sheet from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, licensed, modern facilities to store nuclear fuel present little potential to harm public health or to the environment, particularly with the advent of dry cask storage facilities in the 1980s — which Wyoming would likely pursue.
Some have highlighted potential risks of dry cask storage, particularly during transport between short-term and long-term storage facilities (which the commission tightly regulates) and their susceptibility to natural disasters or terrorist attacks — dangers outlined in a 2012 public policy briefing from the Congressional Research Service.
However, industry groups like the World Nuclear Association have argued the ability to safely store nuclear waste is more an issue “of public acceptance, and not of technological feasibility,” and that dry cask storage is the safest, most effective means of storing the byproduct of nuclear energy production — a pressing need for an energy source expected to see a significant number of plant retirements over the coming decades, according to a 2018 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Whichever way the discussion goes, Anderson hopes the tone remains civil and that the arguments — whether for or against the proposal — stick to the facts.
“That’s the game,” he said. “You have to be civil or we’ll cut you off. You can talk about the facts, anyone can do that, but we don’t want hearsay or scare tactics. Just the facts, that’s what we’re looking for.”