In 1992, Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan vetoed the “monitored retrievable storage” process that would have brought nuclear waste to Wyoming. In doing so, he wrote a letter to the federal government listing seven reasons why he thought it was a bad idea.

“It was one of the most enjoyable letters that I wrote while governor,” Sullivan said on Friday while speaking to the Wyoming Geological Association in Casper.

It was enjoyable not because he took joy in ending the process, he said, but because of the certainty he had acquired in examining the issues so thoroughly and then understanding what was at stake for Wyoming’s people.

“It was my bottom-line conclusion that the state of Wyoming didn’t have the political energy to have this kind of divisive battle at this time with no assurance of an outcome. It would have been a battle to have a battle,” said Sullivan.

“There was huge fear. This struck a chord like I never seen in my office over anything,” Sullivan continued. “I had three boxes of letters, pro and con. 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.”

One overriding issue at the time was whether the federal government would come through on its promise to remove nuclear waste from a temporary facility in Fremont County to a permanent federal repository. Nearly 20 years later, Sullivan said he can look back on his decision to veto the temporary storage site in Wyoming and say that he got it right. The federal government’s attempt to build a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is officially dead, and has been for several years. Still, the United State’s has no long-term plan for the storage of nuclear waste.

Wyoming’s “temporary” nuclear storage facility may have never lived up to its name.

Yet the issue hasn’t gone away. Sullivan was invited to speak to the Wyoming Geological Association for two reasons. First, he recently addressed President Barack Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which is charged with understanding why the nuclear storage effort failed and recommend a process to create a successful storage program. Secondly, the uranium mining industry is experiencing a rebirth in Wyoming. If the nuclear power industry has a problem at the end of the cycle, eventually it will bungle up things on the front end of the cycle.

Sullivan said the same problems that existed 20 years ago still exist today. Among them is the lack of trust that western states have of the federal government to either follow through on a long-term policy or to actually work in a state’s own interest. Yucca Mountain was a failure, said Sullivan, because the federal government tried to impose its will on a state that didn’t buy-in to the plan.

“If they tried it today, somebody would bring up wolves,” Sullivan said, referring to the bitter battle between Wyoming and the federal government over wolf management.

Yet Sullivan said some things have changed over the past 20 years that makes a national nuclear waste plan possible. He said the scientific understanding of the issue and the technology have both advanced greatly.

“The question is ‘how do you educate the constituency, or the people, so science is both explained and accepted?’ I think that can be done. I think it’s a five-year process to educate the public,” said Sullivan.

Call me a pessimist, but when it comes to broad public attitudes and science, science sometimes takes a back seat to other influences. I heard somebody on the radio today point out that it seems there’s a growing trend to regarding science as opinion. Nothing underscores that notion more than the poll that suggested the number of Americans who understand that climate change and man’s role in it is real declined during the economic recession.

Even if the science and technology of nuclear waste storage is well-understood, the emotions that factor into people’s sense of place and security are likely to remain the larger influence. Given Wyoming’s dual identity as a mining culture and a lover of the environment, issues such as these are particularly ripe for emotionally-charged battles.

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Published on February 18, 2011

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