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 vertically on a specially-designed storage pad. (Flickr Creative Commons/Sandia National Laboratories)

As a participant of the nuclear waste wars of the 1990s, I am troubled by the news that lawmakers are once again trying to turn Wyoming into the nation’s high-level nuclear waste dump. 

The Legislature’s Management Council this summer authorized — in an unannounced de facto secret email vote —  the Joint Minerals Committee to study the issue of storing spent nuclear fuel in the state as part of its ongoing effort to boost revenue. The Spent Fuel Rods Subcommittee that resulted met in September to “just explore the facts,” according to subcommittee chairman Jim Anderson. The subcommittee completed its report, recommending Wyoming continue to study spent fuel storage. But it did so without allowing anyone but the nuclear industry more than a brief chance to comment during that “fact-finding” meeting. 

Mr. Anderson, fact finding about nuclear waste is not needed. Fremont County and Wyoming can tell you, “been there, done that.” The issue has come up before; residents don’t want it. Research shows the practice is too risky. A University of Wyoming study in 1994 showed over 80% of Wyoming’s citizens opposed a high-level nuclear waste facility, according to the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Furthermore, Anderson and the subcommittee could have saved time and money by googling “spent fuel dry storage problems” or clicking on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s link to facts about leaks in spent fuel storage and lack of a solution. 

Unlike the scenario for searching for facts that existed in the 1990s, today, the Department of Energy website provides a host of easily accessible information. The State of Nevada Nuclear Waste Projects website is also full of information. Nevada studied the issue of permanent storage for over 20 years and found the NRC and DOE could not provide guarantees of safety, health, income and transportation. 

Anderson calls the dedicated Wyoming citizens who took part in the 1990s nuclear waste debate “environmental terrorists.” In fact, we are normal people taking part in the democratic process. We are people fighting to protect our state and the states along potential transportation routes from a terrible mistake.

During the September subcommittee meeting, legislators asked the spokesmen from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy question after question. What is spent fuel? How is it different than Wyoming’s uranium yellowcake? What severe violations have been issued? Nuclear experts often responded with answers like “didn’t bring that information … not sure … we’ll send that to you.” 

I was in the audience with my packet of facts. I had the answers! As the meeting progressed, I realized the facts were of no interest to Chairman Anderson. 

Wyoming’s uranium yellowcake contains low-level radiation. Paper, aluminum, even our skin can protect us from low-level radiation. Spent fuel rods contain high-level radiation. This type of radiation is “hot.” The temperature is hot and the radiation coming off the fuel rods is so dangerous it can kill in minutes, even after 100 years out of the reactor.  

William Boyle of the DOE said in the meeting that  radiation is “somewhat challenging for lay people to understand.” Seriously? An expert can’t explain the issue to lay people? Boyle said high-level radiation is dangerous to “biological material.” Spent fuel rods contain “ionizing radiation,” he added, “requiring extraordinary measures of handling and storage” to ensure the fuel rod assemblies don’t “change their configuration” in transport. In layman’s terms: High-level nuclear waste will kill or damage living things, and if the fuel assemblies touch each other they can reach “criticality” or explode. 

On the NRC website there are pages of level 3 (serious and escalating) violations concerning spent fuel during the last five years. The NRC explained that level 5 violations, reaching criticality, are “prohibited.” What a relief!  

In 1991, Fremont County Commissioners secretly sent off an application that entered Wyoming into phase one of a study to store high-level nuclear waste or become a high-level nuclear waste site. The winter of 1991-92 involved an information meeting once a week in rotating locations of all Fremont County towns. These meeting consisted of nuclear industry experts touting the advantages and safety of storing spent fuel, while citizen after citizen stood to give comment, each stating their facts and handing in their sources. In August of 1992, Gov. Mike Sullivan stopped the study, refusing to allow Wyoming to continue on to the next phase. Gov. Jim Geringer also stopped the discussion of accepting spent fuel into Wyoming in April of 1995.

Like the danger of nuclear waste, this issue just keeps hanging around. This year’s study period, during the September meeting, allowed just 25 minutes of public comment. 

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On Tuesday, the Minerals, Business, and Economics Committee will again take up this issue in a meeting in Casper. The agenda lists public comment on eight topics. For seven of the public comment periods, there are no restrictions listed. The public comment on high-level nuclear waste is the only comment period that has stipulations. Comment on nuclear waste storage “will be limited to no more than 40 minutes.” The agenda goes on to say those commenting “are asked not to provide repetitive testimony” and threatens that the public could “forfeit their opportunity to comment” if they don’t follow these rules. 

My question is: What is the rush? Why the hostile explanation of rules for this topic only? Why did the subcommittee limit public involvement and why is the Minerals Committee appearing to do the same? 

Join us in Casper to make your comments, listen and support the few people who will be allowed to speak. If you can’t make the meeting, write a comment to the Minerals Committee.

Colleen Whalen

Colleen Whalen is the spokesperson for Wyoming Against Nuclear Dumps.

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6 Comments

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  1. Who is that is involved in this attempt , the same group as before, once again looking for federal largess? This is once again an ill-advised proposal. Are we so desperate that we are willing to be the nation’s nuclear dump?

    1. The sub committee spent fuel rod chair I Jim Anderson (Senate) and Senator Eli Bebout brought the issue to Wyoming…again!
      The want to do a private away from reactor spent fuel storage in “Gas Hills” or Shirley Basin”.
      ON October 30th Minerals committee added a presentation on Thorium nuclear reactors to the agenda. They limited comment for the public yet invited the nuclear industry to talk to us about becoming a nuclear reactor site…thanks for your interest. Check out the Wyoming Against Nuclear Dumps Facebook page

  2. Don’t sell your heritage for a bowel of porridge. An example: remember or look up the days of the Army Depot Arsenal north of Denver, Colorado of the 1960s & 70s and the hazards, costs and legal maneuvers to rehabilitate the land. What kind of problem do you want to leave for your kids? Money doesn’t always have to be the issue, there are greater things, and Wyoming is one of them!

    Unfortunately, Nevada is a nuclear waste dump, so those areas should be considered first.

  3. Good article but there IS another side to this. The nuclear waste has to be stored someplace and Wyoming not only has land available but we need the money. The waste IS going to be stored someplace and like it or not we may as well give some serious thought to taking it.

    1. Nancy, there is plenty of open land around Cheyenne. Does that mean you are willing to have the storage site near you?

    2. Jim Anderson talks of 1 billion to 10 billion a year. I have not seen, nor can I find any facts to support this. Research into the laws tells us it is between 1 million to 5 million per year – If a site like this were legal. Congress would need to change laws for a site like this.
      DOE in Casper told us there is no money for a private off site reactor such as the one planned here. The waste is safe where it is (on site at the reactors where it is produced) for 70 plus years. (DOE Casper, 9/5/19)
      Wyoming first studied this issue the winter of 1991-92. The “committee” brought in experts to weekly meetings that lasted hours. Nuclear experts came in to tell us about Safety, Health, Income and Transportation. Then the public would stand up for 3 minutes each and present hard won facts (internet was knew and home access rare) that contracted many of the industries opinions and misrepresentation. This is not yellowcake. We sold it, they turned it into something deadly and now they want to give it back. . Governor Sullivan stopped it, Governor Geringer said No after study, the Western Governors oppose a high level nuke dump, Utah just said no to a dump like this…” Now the facts are easy to find. I handed in documents from the NRC and DOE websites. Thanks for your interest – check out the articles on the legislative website from the people who spoke today – They proposed a wyo take a nuclear reactor also, but I’m not sure the reactor people have their material posted yet. Check out facts presented from New Mexico that shows multiple use – oil and gas, mining – could be limited if dry cask dump in area.