Wyoming lawmakers may consider working with the U.S. Department of Energy in a new “consent-based” effort to establish sites for storing highly radioactive nuclear waste. Storing nuclear waste was the source of terrific controversy the last time Wyoming experienced a severe energy bust in the late 1980s.
The Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee has scheduled more than 2 hours to discuss nuclear waste storage and other nuclear energy-related topics when it meets Thursday at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission building in Casper.
DOE wants states to voluntarily research the potential for temporary and permanent storage of spent nuclear energy material. Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality officials attended a meeting in Denver in May at which “consent-based siting” of nuclear waste was discussed. DEQ has been ordered to examine what it would take to draft a “permit mapping process” for nuclear waste storage, however it has not been instructed to take any actions.
“We just want to see what it takes to actually permit something,” said Michael Von Flatern (R-Gillette), committee co-chairman. “We’re not proposing a nuclear storage facility or building a nuclear plant here. We’re not instigating one. We’re not going forward to the world and saying, ‘Hey, send your waste to us.’ We just want to find out what it takes to create a storage [facility] and-or a nuclear plant.”
Von Flatern acknowledged that the topic of nuclear waste storage comes during a severe economic downturn, just as in the late 1980s when elected officials were under pressure to find new industries to generate revenue and create jobs.
“It’s really similar times we’re going through now, and we probably should have followed up in the 1990s,” he said, adding that it’s time to see what Wyoming can do regarding nuclear energy.
Others worry there’s already a movement afoot to revive the idea.
“I guess bad ideas never die,” said Jill Morrison, who lobbied against a push for nuclear waste storage in Wyoming.
Morrison, organizer for the Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council, said opposition to nuclear storage 25 years ago was intense and widespread throughout the state.
“It mobilized everybody in the state and people were overwhelmingly against the idea,” she said. “I think we broke the fax machine in the governor’s office.”
Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan vetoed the “Monitored Retrievable Storage” process in 1992, putting an end to years of intense debate over bringing nuclear waste to the state. In a 2011 address to the Wyoming Geological Association, Sullivan said “There was huge fear. This struck a chord like I never seen in my office over anything.
“I had three boxes of letters, pro and con,” he continued. “They were not check-the-box letters. These were coming from people hand-written because of their love for Wyoming and because of their fear of nuclear.”
Fremont County commissioners had pressed for a monitored retrievable storage facility, promoting it as an economic boon after a severe energy downturn in the 1980s. Jeffrey City had gone from a uranium boom-town to a ghost town, losing 95 percent of its population in the span of three years in the mid-1980s. But promoters of temporary storage couldn’t overcome deep mistrust of the federal government after it appeared willing to designate Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository against the state of Nevada’s wishes.
In 2012, Sullivan told a legislative task force, “I wasn’t sure we could trust the federal government to do what they said they were going to do,” the Casper Journal reported.
Sullivan was tapped to serve on President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The commission was to examine why the nuclear storage effort failed and recommend a process to create a successful storage program. The DOE’s current “consent-based” talks are a continuation of that effort.
Wyoming has a long history of uranium mining. A surge in uranium prices in the 2000s renewed interest in the state’s uranium ore deposits, and producers moved to open new mines and bring some shuttered mines back into production. But the market has languished for the past several years, and producers are scaling back, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Wyoming remains the top uranium producer in the U.S., shipping 2.9 million pounds in 2014, according to the Wyoming Mining Association. Despite current market conditions, industry and business leaders in the state say it would be beneficial to add the next step in the process — “uranium conversion.”
After uranium yellowcake — U3O8 — is produced at a mine, the material is then shipped in 55-gallon barrels to far-away locations to be converted into pure uranium hexafluoride — UF6. Adding a conversion facility to an existing Wyoming uranium mine and mill would add value to Wyoming’s uranium resources, according to the Wyoming Business Council.
The taxpayer-supported Business Council hired Jim Graham of Nuclear Fuel Cycle Consulting in 2013 to promote the idea and try to get investors interested in building a conversion plant in Wyoming.
“WBC’s Consultant has met with companies throughout the world promoting Wyoming as the location for a new modern uranium conversion facility,” Business Council CEO Shawn Reese wrote in a memo to the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee.
Read Gov. Mike Sullivan’s August 21, 1992 letter to the Fremont County Commission: