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2018 Wyoming Legislature

Sen. Jim Anderson applauds during Gov. Matt Mead's State of the State address Feb. 12, 2018, during the joint session of the Wyoming Legislature at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne. A legislative committee has appointed six members to investigate the idea of storing spent nuclear fuel rods in the state. Similar projects are underway in Texas and New Mexico.

One week ago, amid heightened uncertainty about the future of Wyoming’s coal industry, this board called on members of the state Legislature to stop avoiding the difficult conversation of how to secure our economic future.

The next day, a legislative committee voted to look into the possibility of storing spent nuclear fuel rods in the state. It’s fair to say this is not exactly the kind of proposal we imagined. But we support these lawmakers for having the mettle to discuss ideas they know without doubt will be contentious.

Sen. Jim Anderson, a Casper Republican and co-chairman of the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee, said temporary storage of the material could bring Wyoming up to $1 billion per year in revenue. Anderson suggested former uranium mines in the Gas Hills and Shirley Basin as ideal locations for storage facilities.

Without all the facts, we aren’t ready to take a stand on the proposal. We’re naturally uneasy at the thought of tons of nuclear fuel being plopped on the prairie. But we’re prepared to approach the idea with open minds and make an informed decision once the committee has completed its study.

To be clear, the odds are stacked against such an idea being approved by the Legislature or the public. The reason the federal government would pay such a high premium to store waste in Wyoming is that, frankly, no one else wants it.

Encased in radiation-shielded casks of steel and concrete, spent fuel rods from the nation’s nuclear power plants are stored at sites across the country. They’re intended for eventual shipment to the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository in Nevada, where the federal government has planned to safely and permanently dispose of nuclear fuel and radioactive waste 1,000 feet below ground. But development stalled years ago.

Congress directed the Department of Energy to begin studying Yucca Mountain in 1987, and officially designated it the nation’s nuclear waste disposal site in 2002. It has faced legal challenges and local pushback from the beginning, and work was halted by the Obama administration. All that has been accomplished at the site is a five-mile exploratory tunnel, and no significant work is currently underway.

Anderson says Wyoming would only have to store the fuel rod casks for five to 10 years before they could be hauled to their final resting place below the Nevada desert. But despite renewed efforts to jump-start the federal storage project, including vocal support from Sen. John Barrasso, the future of Yucca Mountain is uncertain.

Closer to home, advocating for nuclear storage can be politically risky as well. Sen. Eli Bebout was among those who expressed support for an unrelated nuclear waste proposal in the 1990s, and the blowback was enough to wreak havoc on his campaign for governor a decade later.

Convincing the Legislature, state agencies and the people of Wyoming that storing spent nuclear fuel in our state will be no easy task. But this is exactly the type of complicated issue we elected our leaders to address.

Wyoming clearly can’t rely on the coal industry to fund state government forever. We need leaders willing to step outside the comfort zone of fossil fuels to find new revenue sources that will allow our state to continue to thrive. Not every idea will succeed, and the best course of action might not be politically convenient. It depends on the consensus of the audience.

Like taxes on cigarettes, beer or gasoline, a fuel rod storage facility may or may not be the right choice for Wyoming. But regardless of the outcome, we applaud anyone who’s willing to stand up and bring new ideas to the table.

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