In their latest move to diversify Wyoming revenue streams and divorce the state from its dependence on coal, senior lawmakers voted last week to launch an investigation into the economic potential of storing spent nuclear fuel rods.
A legislative committee voted 7-6 on July 8 in favor of allocating $6,000 to the joint minerals committee to study the issue, according to Matt Obrecht, director of the Legislative Service Office.
A subcommittee of six Wyoming senators, including Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, who co-chairs the minerals committee, will work with the Department of Energy to consider the viability of the plan. The group will present key findings to the full committee by Oct. 15, according to Obrecht.
Entertaining the charged idea of storing spent nuclear fuel rods harkens back to two attempts by Wyoming public officials to build facilities decades ago. Neither effort was successful. But Anderson said now is the time to consider the possibility again as coal’s precipitous decline continues to rattle the health of the state’s budget.
According to the Wyoming Taxpayers Association, the state collected over $210 million in severance taxes from coal, the most from any mineral, in the 2017 fiscal year.
“We’re having a budget deficit and there’s nothing that we’ve figured out from the Revenue Committee or Economic Development Committee that will bring in very many dollars,” Anderson said. “... I thought we ought to look at the idea (of storing spent nuclear fuel rods), to see if it is a possibility and learn what the Department of Energy is thinking.”
The goal of the discussions between lawmakers and the federal agency is to answer preliminary questions: “Can we do it, how can we do it, how many sites and what kind of facilities (do we need)?” Anderson explained.
Pete Davis is a retired nuclear physicist living in Sheridan with over four decades of experience working on nuclear reactor sites, overseeing waste safety and risk assessment. He expressed interest in volunteering his expertise to the commission, if needed, he told the Star-Tribune.
“It would be a financial boom to the state because the Department of Energy would pay the state to store the fuel rods,” Davis said. “There is really not much in the way of risk. (The casks) are really robust, built to withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, projectiles or various things. They are very strong and it would take a catastrophic event to cause them to be compromised and release any radioactivity.”
The spent nuclear fuel rods usually spend multiple years cooling in a pool of water, a process that decreases their radioactivity. Afterwards, the rods are sent to disposal sites. With proper management, the fuel rods are safe and not a threat to public safety or the environment, Davis said. The risk of radioactivity only increases if the material is mishandled or a very rare catastrophic event occurs, the nuclear physicist added.
If stored in Wyoming, the nuclear rods would be enclosed in leak-proof dry casks, or durable containers made of radiation-shielding steel and filled with inert gas, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
In 1991, the Fremont County Commissioners considered bringing a storage site into the county. The following year, an advisory group devised an economic impact analysis outlining specialized safety precautions and environmental safeguards that workers overseeing the transportation and storage of the hazardous material would need to take. The group concluded that the possible risk of radiation to the public or the environment were “very low.” But the plan did not move forward, in large part due to public opposition.
Davis worked as a lead analyst during the early development of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site, a project that has since been delayed following years of legal trouble. In the mid-1990s, Davis was responsible for investigating any possible accidents that could happen to the storage modules and completing multiple environmental impact statements.
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“When we looked at the Yucca Mountain project, ... fortunately, we did an exhaustive study of what could happen to the fuel rods if an earthquake, plane crash, terrorist attack or even a volcano eruption were to occur,” he explained. “In some of those instances there was a minor release of radioactivity.”
Environmental groups have historically mounted efforts to oppose storing spent nuclear fuel rods in Wyoming. Connie Wilbert, director of Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, found the latest proposition alarming.
“We are very skeptical and do not think that it is the way that Wyoming should be dealing with revenue issues,” she said. She called the idea “shortsighted and extremely risky.”
“The response of Wyoming residents has always been, ‘No thank you,’” she added.
Wilbert said the risks of radioactive accidents increase when the hazardous material is transported by rail or highway in and out of the state, pointing to instances in the past where accidents have occurred.
What’s more, Wilbert expressed concern over the absence of a formal public announcement from the Management Council that the idea was being reconsidered by Wyoming lawmakers.
“We’re pretty concerned with the way the topic has been brought up without any public notice or normal mechanisms for initiating this kind of discussion or this kind of process,” she said. “That is (evidence) of the lack of transparency, to say the least, on a topic that is important and that people care a lot about.”
The United States supplies about one-third of the world’s nuclear energy for electricity generation from about 98 active nuclear power reactor plants across the country. Because no permanent storage facility exists for the spent nuclear rods, the Department of Energy stores spent fuel rods at several sites, mostly reactor plants, across the country, according to Davis. But as storage sites fill to capacity, the Department of Energy has sought additional locations to relocate the waste.
“So far they have been (mostly) unable to do so,” Davis said. “The mandate was for them to have a place to put to put it by 1998 and obviously they missed that date, by a considerable amount.”
Any storage of nuclear rods in Wyoming would be on a temporary basis for now, Anderson said. Ideally, the rods would be stored in a remote location. Anderson has suggested uranium mines, including Gas Hills in Fremont County or the Shirley Basin south of Casper, as possible sites, but he emphasized the need to do additional research.
Davis added his 2 cents: “It would be useful to have storage near a railroad because fuel rods would come in on rail cars. And the area should not susceptible to flooding.”