CASPER — Wyoming lawmakers and regulatory officials said Thursday they’re ready to consider revising laws and possibly take part in a federal effort to build temporary and permanent storage for highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.
The Legislature’s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee kept alive the possibility of participating in what the U.S. Department of Energy says would be a voluntary and “consent-based” approach. The committee heard testimony and public comment on the topic in Casper, resurrecting a controversial idea for Wyoming.
“We are at the very beginning of saying, ‘Hey, what if?’ and ‘How do we do it?’” said Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander).
The DOE under the Obama administration has cautiously approached long-ago promises by the federal government to find new temporary and permanent storage sites. The feds’ efforts were launched in the 1980s and imploded in the 1990s, due to distrust in Nevada and other states after Congress and DOE appeared willing to short-circuit a cooperative state-federal process.
A blue ribbon commission formed by the Obama administration in 2010 made recommendations for how the government might revisit the nuclear waste storage issue, and in the past year DOE has held nine meetings across the country to collect feedback from state officials on a new “consent-based” approach. So far, the DOE has not put forth a formal plan.
But the goal of temporary nuclear waste storage resonates in Wyoming.
The state is home to some of the largest mineable uranium ore deposits in the U.S., has a long history of uranium mining, and remains the largest domestic producer of uranium — or U3O8 “yellowcake.” Wyoming is also a leading producer of oil, natural gas and coal, but state officials have longed to supplement extraction with value-added processes to help level out the boom-and-bust cycle of the mineral economy.
That history and ambition to expand mineral-based industries — and the fact that Wyoming was in the midst of an energy bust — fueled a push for temporary nuclear storage in Wyoming in the early 1990s. But not without controversy and widespread opposition. In 1992, Gov. Mike Sullivan vetoed the “Monitored Retrievable Storage” process between the state and the federal government, ending years of debate.
But last week, old lines were redrawn as the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee helped resurrect the idea of shipping to and storing nuclear waste in the Equality State.
Rep. Larsen, who works in oil and gas, and Sen. James Anderson (R-Casper) both suggested there still exists a lack of understanding among the general public about the robust human health and environmental safeguards in the uranium extraction and nuclear energy industries. Larsen said during the debate in the ’90s a demonstration nuclear waste cask was shipped to Fremont County for examination, and films were shown illustrating the safety of the casks.
“They can fall off a train or a truck and it wouldn’t hurt a thing,” Larsen said.
But the Wyoming Outdoor Council challenged that. Many claims made then about the durability of nuclear waste casks and other safeguard claims were debunked, said Steff Kessler, the Outdoor Council’s director of external relations. She and the Outdoor Council were deeply engaged in the debate in the 1990s. The testimony provided to the committee by state officials left out one significant reason why former Gov. Sullivan vetoed the process, she said.
“The No. 1 reason Gov. Sullivan cited was that it was not needed,” Kessler said, and then read the committee part of Sullivan’s 1992 letter to the Fremont County Commission.
“Does the national policy which was initially designed to place the MRS in the East near the point of origination of the waste and now appears to target the West continue to make sense?” the letter said. “Does a policy, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission states is not required for public health and safety, i.e. transporting a portion of the waste from the approximately 70 points of storage halfway across the country to a ‘temporary’ site only to be moved again if and when a permanent site is established, represent appropriate national policy? If the storage of the waste is as safe and as benign as represented, does it not make better sense to leave it where it is or, if it is to be moved temporarily, to place it at or near the location of the permanent repository?”
(Click here to read the full letter.)
Kessler faced a line of cross-examination from several committee members.
“Don’t you feel like we have to step up to the plate, for the nation?” said Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale). He asked what WOC offers as a solution.
“I absolutely do think we need to figure out something,” Kessler said. “I think the blue ribbon commission is going in the right direction. … I do think it is better to store above ground, and keep working on long-term technology solutions.”
Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) suggested that WOC’s warning — that the fed’s promise of temporary storage may end up being permanent storage — contradicts the organization’s past position against transporting nuclear waste. If nuclear waste were held at a temporary site in Wyoming, wouldn’t WOC then advocate for transportation to a permanent site?
Kessler said there’s a difference between transporting nuclear waste twice — to a temporary site then a permanent site — and transporting it once to a permanent site. She also corrected committee members who suggested WOC advocated against permanent storage, saying the organization only made recommendations based on what was proposed in Wyoming; shipping radioactive waste into the state for temporary storage.
“From our perspective I would caution you to think long and hard about pursuing this,” Kessler told the committee. “It certainly will be controversial and it will not happen quick.”
Native American opposition
The committee also heard objection to nuclear waste storage from a representative of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, which represents the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribal members on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Jason Baldes, who heads the advocacy center, said the energy industries and federal government had long earned the distrust of the two tribes when it comes to environmental matters.
“We consider it an environmental justice issue,” Baldes told WyoFile after speaking to the commission. “Lots of these types of things are disproportionately placed on not only Native American communities, but people of color. It hasn’t been adequately addressed.”
In particular, Baldes said his organization is deeply dissatisfied with the federal response to health impacts related to uranium mill tailings that appear to have contaminated an aquifer tapped by domestic wells on the reservation. Testing by the now defunct joint tribal Wind River Environmental Quality Commission found there’s a plume of contaminated water migrating through the aquifer, and that people who drank the water have suffered serious illness, he said.
Work to study the health implications and to clean up the plume has ground to a standstill, he said. The Native American community won’t support efforts such as nuclear waste storage given the history and current dissatisfaction regarding environmental issues today.
“There’s a range of other issues with air and water,” Baldes said. “So I think that adequate representation by the tribes is needed, but also accountability of these industries to the tribes.”
The committee asked the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality for an update on the uranium mill tailings contamination and related health and cleanup worries raised by Baldes.
For more on the uranium pollution concerns on the Wind River Indian Reservation, read these related articles:
Read the 2015 GAO report on transportation of spent nuclear fuel: