Wyoming lawmakers quietly explore storing spent nuclear fuel

Management Council votes by email to study housing spent nuclear fuel at Gas Hills, Shirley Basin to bring what a state senator says could be $1 billion a year.

Massive containers hold spent nuclear fuel at a dry storage facility. This photo shows, at right, a dry cask recently loaded with spent fuel being lifted from a horizontal transporter to be placed verticlaly on a specially designed storage pad. (Flickr Creative Commons/Sandia National Laboratories)

ANGUS M. THEURMER JR. | wyofile.com

A legislative committee has appointed six of its members to investigate the idea with the U.S. Department of Energy, Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Casper) told WyoFile on Friday. Anderson is co-chairman of the Joint Minerals Business and Economic Development Committee which received approval and funding from the Legislative Management Council in an unannounced vote to study the issue before the next legislative session begins in early 2020.

Wyoming’s dependence on an ailing coal industry spurred talk about pursuing the temporary storage idea, Anderson said. Fuel rods would be housed in casks with two-foot-thick walls, he said.

“We’re losing a lot of revenue off coal,” he said. ‘We’ve got a huge problem,” with the state budget.

Blackjewel LLC, the owner of two coal mines outside Gillette, shut their gates last week amid bankruptcy turmoil, putting some 600 miners out of work. In addition to the lost jobs, Wyoming could miss out on taxes if the mines don’t reopen, accelerating an already bleak decline in state revenues from that industry.

The state is looking for other revenue options, Anderson said, and “this is a way.” The federal government could pay up to $1 billion a year for the temporary storage, he said, depending on the size and scope of a Wyoming project. That’s the amount the federal government offered last time Wyoming considered the issue about 15 years ago, he said.

Anderson couldn’t immediately name the six members who serve on the subcommittee that will engage DOE, but he said it’s unlikely the group would report at the next minerals committee meeting in August. More likely there would be a presentation in November, he said.

Just the facts

The committee and sub-group will “just explore the facts,” Anderson said. He expects the sub-committee to have one or two meetings with DOE officials.

After that, the minerals committee could fashion a bill that would enable a state agency to pursue a project, he said. But much has to be discovered.

Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Casper)

“We’ll take this slow, get information first,” Anderson said.

Spent nuclear fuel rods are currently being stored at nuclear plants — some of which are in residential neighborhoods, Anderson said. Rural Wyoming makes more sense as a temporary storage site, he said.

The U.S. is the only country that prohibits the reprocessing of the fuel rods, Anderson said. “If the federal government didn’t block that, we could reuse them.”

The spent fuel rod casks would be temporarily stored in Wyoming on their way to a permanent storage site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. They were to be sent there two years ago, Anderson said, but the facility hasn’t earned the necessary approval.

The Wyoming effort is specific regarding fuel rods only, he said. “There’s nothing here about storing nuclear waste,” Anderson said. Storage might be for 5-10 years, he said.

Outside the casks, “there’s no radiation,” he said. In contrast, old uranium mine sites in the Shirley Basin and Gas Hills register naturally on Geiger counters, he said.

The casks would be “cleaner than the natural atmosphere in these locations,” Anderson said.

The old uranium sites are out of the way, Anderson said.

“Nobody will ever see it,” he said of a storage site. “Nobody even knows where it is,” he said of the locations at Gas Hills and the Shirley Basin. “They’ll never see it and there’s no danger from the casks.”

Wyoming might have to build some infrastructure, he said, like a fence around the casks. The state could offer both the old mine sites, he said, potentially increasing revenue.

“Environmental terrorists” sure to object

 Wyoming’s previous attempts to bring some types of nuclear storage to the state were blocked by environmental groups, Anderson said.

During an earlier effort to bring nuclear material to Wyoming “the environmental terrorists came out against it and stopped it in its tracks,” he said. That opposition likely remains.

“I think they’ll be back terrorizing us again,” Anderson said.

Wyoming people will likely welcome such a project, Anderson said, given the potential $1 billion or more annual revenue stream.

Mike Gierau

The Legislature’s Management Council voted 7-6 in the email vote on July 8 to add the item as a study topic for the joint minerals committee, according to the Legislative Service Office. Anderson and minerals committee co-chairman Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) brought the issue to the council, a super-committee that assigns study tasks to other committees, LSO director Matt Obrecht wrote WyoFile in an email.

The topic appears to have evolved after the Management Council’s last meeting in March where it assigned other interim study topics to various committees. Nothing regarding temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel rods appeared on the posted agendas or published minutes of the Management Council or subsequent mineral committee proceedings.

On the Management Council, Sens. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), Drew Perkins (R-Casper) and Bill Landen (R-Casper) plus Reps. Greear, Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), and Speaker of the House Steve Harshman (R-Casper) supported the minerals committee request, Obrecht wrote.

Sens. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (D-Rock Springs, Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) opposed the measure along with Reps. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), John Freeman (D-Green River) and Kathy Connolly (D-Laramie), according to Obrecht’s email.

The Management Council vote was taken by email, Obrecht said. The motion includes funds to support the investigation, but WyoFile could not immediately ascertain how much.

Gierau outlined his opposition to the measure.

“I like a billion dollars as much as the next guy, but some things are not for sale,” he told WyoFile. He pointed to efforts through the state’s  Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming and other programs to diversify the state’s economy.

“Of all the things we want to do… I just don’t see this as a winning proposition, on an environmental, social or personal level,” he said.

He noted the close vote on the Management Council and said he would continue his opposition.

“I will do my best to make sure it’s not as close on the floor,” he said.

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