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Wyoming lawmakers decide not to pursue nuclear waste proposal, though options remain open
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Wyoming lawmakers decide not to pursue nuclear waste proposal, though options remain open

Nuclear Waste Worries

The pool storage area where spent nuclear fuel tanks are unloaded in baskets, and placed under 4 meters of water to lower their temperature as part of the treatment of nuclear waste, is seen in 2007 at the Areva Nuclear Plant of La Hague, near Cherbourg, western France. 

The Wyoming Legislature will not be pursuing legislation to study the storage of spent nuclear fuel, it was announced at a Tuesday meeting of the Joint Committee on Minerals, Business and Economic Development, after the bill’s sponsor noted that the governor’s office has full authority to pursue the topic on its own without the consent of the Legislature.

The bill — which would have been sponsored by the full Joint Committee on Minerals, Business, and Economic Development — was intended to authorize Gov. Mark Gordon’s office to study whether the storage of spent nuclear fuel rods in Wyoming would be economically, logistically and environmentally viable, according to a November memo from a subcommittee tasked with looking into the topic over the summer.

In a presentation to his fellow committee members, Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, told members that Gordon needed no approval from lawmakers to enter into negotiations with the Department of Energy for the licensing and construction of a facility designed to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel within dry casks. Pitched by Anderson as a means to raise revenue for the state, the proposal was intended to serve as a short-term solution while the federal government continues to grapple with a proposed permanent storage solution at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

Gov. Mark Gordon open to nuclear waste storage

Spent fuel rods generated by nuclear power plants are typically stored on site at the facilities in which they were generated. There are currently 81 such independent facilities in the U.S., according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

With the proposal now dead in the Legislature, the final say will now fall on Gordon’s shoulders. Though a spokesman in Gordon’s office told the Star-Tribune the state’s chief executive has not yet been in touch with committee members on the proposal, he remained open to discussing it, saying in a meeting with the editorial board of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle last week that, while he felt other industries would be better means of generating revenue, he would “not stand in its way,” if the Legislature were to approve the study.

“The Governor remains uncertain that this proposal is the best way to generate revenue for the state,” his spokesman, Michael Pearlman, said in a statement. “Our office has not been in contact with the Department of Energy and would need to better understand the opportunities and associated risks involved before moving forward. The Governor plans to discuss this topic with Senator Anderson soon.”

Pearlman also noted the governor’s office is already beginning to look toward other revenue-generating opportunities, including the disposal of environmentally benign, decommissioned wind turbine blades as part of the reclamation process for Wyoming’s coal mines.

Even if the governor were to pursue spent nuclear fuel storage in earnest, the approval process for such a facility, according to materials provided to members of the committee by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the summer, is anticipated to take several years.

Opponents of the legislation have argued that the benefits of such a facility are few, not only questioning just how temporary such a facility would be if Wyoming were to move forward with the proposal but also the amount of revenue spent nuclear fuel storage would ultimately generate for Wyoming. According to federal law, any state to construct such a facility would receive just $10 million per year, with one-third of that going to local governments.

However, the legislation presented Tuesday would have given the governor’s office latitude to try to negotiate a greater amount of money from the federal government, which Anderson, the committee’s co-chairman, said was contingent on the project’s future in Wyoming.

Wyoming lawmakers move ahead with nuclear waste storage proposal

The meeting marks the close of a quick-moving process that attracted little public attention since news of the committee’s formation first broke in July. Colleen Whalen, an activist from Lander, noted in the public comment of Tuesday’s meeting that few people around the state were aware state lawmakers were considering spent nuclear fuel storage, arguing that there were a number of logistical concerns with storing the cask.

Despite the lack of movement on the project, numerous activists and conservation groups were in attendance to speak on the bill, criticizing everything from the viability of the proposal to the need to introduce other, better ideas to diversify Wyoming’s economy. Several citizens criticized the committee for the lack of opportunity to comment on the proposal, both in how quickly the committee moved on the proposal and for the limited opportunities to weigh in at the sole public meeting that was hosted on the proposal prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

“As you can see, there’s a lot of public interest in this topic and a general confusion on what’s on the table,” said Shannon Anderson, an attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

Though the committee does not plan to bring the topic up again this year, Rep. Mike Greear, the committee co-chairman, said the prospect of spent nuclear fuel storage would be treated as a full, interim topic with ample opportunity for public comment should it come up again in the future.

While the committee decided not to pursue the bill, it did have its proponents. In a meeting with the editorial board of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle last week, Gordon said that while he felt other industries would be better means of generating revenue, he would “not stand in its way,” if the Legislature were to approve the study. Others, like former Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness, said his community could benefit from the revenues generated by nuclear fuel storage, though it is unclear which local government would receive those revenues.

“There’s just a plethora of problems that a community can use that money on,” he said in an interview with the Star-Tribune. “And we don’t have any way of generating it.”

As of last week, the Fremont County Commission — which governs the Gas Hills region suggested as a potential site for a storage facility — had not been contacted by state lawmakers on the proposal, according to County Commission Chairman Travis Becker.

“I won’t make any comment one way or the other on that kind of stuff,” Becker said in an interview last week. “But there have been no discussions, and nobody has approached the county commission regarding this project.”

Storing nuclear waste would only net Wyoming $10 million annually -- raising doubts of its viability

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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