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Wyoming lawmakers move ahead with nuclear waste storage proposal
Nuclear Waste

Wyoming lawmakers move ahead with nuclear waste storage proposal

Has tech made it safer to move nukes? Depends whom you ask

In this April 9 photo provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory, barrels of radioactive waste are loaded for transport to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, marking the first transuranic waste-loading operations in five years at the Radioactive Assay Nondestructive Testing facility in Los Alamos, N.M. A fight is raging in courts and Congress over where radioactive materials should be stored and how to safely get the dangerous remnants of decades of bomb-making and power generation to a permanent resting place. 

Despite economic doubts and numerous remaining hurdles, state lawmakers continue to move forward with discussions to potentially bring a temporary nuclear waste storage facility to Wyoming.

At a meeting next month in Casper, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Committee on Minerals, Business and Economic Development will be taking up the idea of creating an exploratory committee within Gov. Mark Gordon’s office and the Department of Environmental Quality to explore the concept’s future in Wyoming.

Despite previous estimates that it would only generate $10 million in annual revenues – a figure that has cast doubt over the project’s viability – committee co-chair Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, said in an interview Friday that he believes the state and Gordon could potentially bargain with the United States Department of Energy for a sum closer to the billion dollars a year or more in revenues Anderson had predicted at the summer’s start, noting that the storage of spent nuclear fuel already costs the United States government an estimated $730 million annually.

“If we got close to that figure then yeah, it would be worthwhile,” Anderson said. “But if they stick to that $10 million figure, we’re not even going to pursue it.”

Gordon declined comment through a spokesman.

Hurdles abound

Early critics of the proposal, however, say that any proposal put forward to store spent nuclear fuel in Wyoming is likely to be dead on arrival, noting that not only does the proposal have to succeed in the state Legislature – it has to clear the United States Congress as well.

That idea is an ambitious one, said longtime Wyoming Outdoor Council lobbyist Stephanie Kessler.

In the past three years, more than a dozen efforts to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act – which controls the flow of funding for nuclear waste storage facilities – have been attempted and failed, while President Donald Trump and Congress have remained in a deadlock throughout the past several years over the administration’s nuclear policy.

While the idea of Yucca Mountain as a permanent storage facility gives many pause, few are thrilled by the idea of dipping into reserves intended for the construction of a permanent facility to instead fund temporary storage facilities in states like Wyoming. For the utilities that have paid into that fund over the years – and often store the nuclear waste their plants generate on-site – the idea that the money they’d contributed to a permanent storage solution would be used to construct a temporary one somewhere else may be unpopular.

Even if the Legislature did choose to pursue the meager $10 million sum offered by law, it won’t do much, Kessler said, with a large share of that fund going to local governments.

“The Department of Energy cannot negotiate for all that money without passing those changes through Congress,” she explained.

That final price tag will be the deal breaker, she added.

“That would put a damper on the whole thing, that’s for sure,” she said. “What we’re going to try and do is say the governor’s office should negotiate with the DOE and see what kind of a deal we can make. If we can’t make a better deal than that, then it’s a dead issue.”

A one-sided debate?

The recommendations the committee will be working on at its meeting next month in Casper are based off of a report generated last month by the first and only meeting of the all-Republican Spent Nuclear Fuel Rods Subcommittee, which consisted primarily of Minerals Committee members and Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton — a key figure in discussions around spent nuclear fuel in Fremont County in the 1990s.

Though the meeting was largely intended for fact-finding – featuring experts from the U.S. Department of Energy as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – those opposed to the project said they felt like they were not granted sufficient time to make their case.

With just eight five-minute slots available for public comment at the committee’s meeting Nov. 5, some opponents feel their opinions are being marginalized in the discussion, giving advocates of storing nuclear waste free reign to shape the narrative.

“We’re hoping that covers everybody who wants to speak,” Anderson said. “We’ve been trying to keep track of that. There’s only four people so far who’ve said they’re going to speak, so I think we have it pretty well covered.”

Some say the format is restrictive, however. Colleen Whalen – a Fremont County resident and the leader of Wyoming Against Nuclear Dumps, which spearheaded opposition to nuclear fuel storage there two decades ago – said in an interview that she had planned to present to committee members for 10 to 15 minutes at next month’s meeting. With just five minutes to speak, she said she’s concerned some of the nuances behind the risks of nuclear fuel storage could be ignored.

“To me, it seems much more serious than it was then,” Whalen said. “It’s going to the Legislature, and there’s been no discussion.”

“This is an indication that they have shut themselves off from gaining any other information on our nation’s struggles with the handling and storage of nuclear waste,” Kessler said. “They’re moving forward with this without all the facts, and to me, that’s discouraging. This is one of the most controversial and challenging public policies facing our nation, yet some folks in the Legislature just seem to be moving ahead without wanting to understand the reasons why no other state has ever come forward to do this.”

Bebout, however, said that spent nuclear fuel storage was worth looking at, and could mean opportunity for areas like the Gas Hills – a uranium-rich region bordering Fremont and Natrona Counties that has lain dormant for decades.

Though he acknowledges it’s a longshot, he said he believes that even a shimmer of a possibility to raise revenue for Wyoming was at least worth considering.

“If we do nothing, nothing will happen,” Bebout said in an interview Friday. “You never know what Congress might do. It’s a national issue, and if we could somehow fit it into what we want to do in Wyoming, see that it’s safe and that we’re compensated properly … we know we need the revenue, we know we need the jobs and the opportunities. I think we should take a look at it.”

The meeting takes place Nov. 4th and 5th at Casper College, and will be livestreamed on the legislature website.


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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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