Have you ever noticed that when Wyoming needs more money, its officials start sniffing around for nuclear waste dump projects?

It’s happening again with the Legislature’s passage of Senate File 6, which updated Wyoming’s conditions for any future nuclear storage. It increases the initial deposit companies must pay the state from $500,000 to $800,000. It directs the state to apply for any funds available from the Interim Storage Fund or Nuclear Waste Fund.

The bill would require the state to prepare a report in the next 21 months that examines the environmental, social and economic impacts of any proposed high-level radioactive waste storage facility.

The bill passed both houses unanimously, but there was still a sticking point over public comment requirements that delayed its final approval. The original proposal stated that “to the extent practicable, the director shall hold public hearings throughout the state to receive comments on the report.”

Ultimately a second conference committee agreed to require at least one public comment hearing in the county or counties where a nuke waste storage site would be located. This was the position advocated by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which has had a long-standing policy opposing any nuclear projects.

Casey Quinn, a PRBRC organizer, said the bill’s proponents claimed it contained small changes to the current law. “With the removal of hearings statewide, that’s not a little change. … [But] overall I would say we’re satisfied. We’ll see how this goes.”

Lawmakers have been interested in locating either a temporary or permanent nuclear waste facility in central Wyoming ever since Gov. Mike Sullivan nixed what would have been the first one a quarter-century ago. The most recent effort was in 2012, when a state legislative task force recommended a bill to allow a nuclear waste storage project if it was located on the site of a Wyoming nuclear power plant.

This is despite the fact Wyoming residents have consistently opposed such efforts. Polls that showed up to 80 percent were against a proposed nuclear waste storage project in 1992 led Sullivan to pull the state out of federal consideration to host such a facility in Fremont County, called a Monitored Retrievable Storage project.

Then, along came Fukushima

What’s happened to the nuclear industry since 1992? Well, in March 2011 there was the colossal accident at Fukushima, Japan, following a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Nearly 2,000 Japanese people died from the evacuations and another 5,000 are expected to die from future cancers.

This tragedy wasn’t directly related to nuclear storage, but most of the state’s plans to build a nuke dump site in Wyoming have suggested it should be at the location of Wyoming’s first nuclear power plant, which doesn’t exist and may never be built.

After years of nuclear fears lessening after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, public opposition against nuclear energy had dropped to the point only 52 percent of the U.S. opposed such projects. That’s hardly a groundswell of support, but downturns in coal, oil and natural gas had allowed the energy industry to at least talk about nuclear energy again in a serious way.

And then came Fukushima, and the odds of a nuclear plant being built in Wyoming now are, in the words of nuclear advocate Rep. David Miller (R-Riverton), “pretty small to zero.”

Miller said he doesn’t think people in Wyoming would accept a nuclear waste storage site, mostly because of the bad press nuclear energy has received. “The press love to talk about nuclear accidents and radiation spills, and things like that,” he said. “Frankly I’m more worried about arsenic and cyanide and things that you can’t detect.”

Isn’t it funny that a little thing like leaking deadly radiation and killing thousands of people can get some folks so worried that they never want to see any nuclear project in Wyoming?

Miller said he’s worked in mining his entire career. “I’ve worked around radiation all my life, and it’s never really concerned me,” the legislator said. “I’ve read all the research on it. … It turns out that low levels of radiation probably stimulate your immune system and make you a healthier person.”

It’s worth noting that when Sullivan addressed a 2012 meeting of the Legislature’s Task Force on Nuclear Energy Production, he agreed with Miller that the tremendously loud and negative reaction to the 1992 MRS project he killed was driven by the public’s fear of anything radioactive.

“This is one of those issues that ignited fear, concern, opposition on any number of levels, the likes of which, frankly, I haven’t seen that much,” he said, adding that those fears were never properly answered through a public information campaign.

Sullivan told the task force he still believes he made the right decision to veto the proposal.

While Miller said the timing isn’t right, he noted, “I would personally push for [nuclear waste storage] if I could get some of my Democratic counterparts on board.” The federal government is seeking states interested in hosting a high-level nuclear storage facility, and several are exploring the possibilities, he said.

“I think we’re already behind in the process,” Miller said. “We can’t get people on board so we might be able to make up a $40 or $50 million a year shortfall [in education] if we were able to get something like this, but I just don’t see it happening.”

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Quinn said he doesn’t have much insight into how likely a nuclear storage facility in Wyoming might be, but added, “Personally, I think it could be very possible.”

That’s what economic development entities like the Wyoming Business Council is banking on. In an Aug. 6, 2016 memo to the Legislature’s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee, WBC CEO Shawn Reese said a consultant for the council “has met with companies throughout the world promoting Wyoming as the site of a new uranium conversion plant.”

Reese wrote that the facility would include low-level waste and could potentially cost $500 million and employ 160 people.

So at least a few state officials and companies have one foot in the state’s potential nuclear waste pond and could dive in head-first if things go their way. How’s that for an analogy some people would like to see really happen?

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. I support nuclear/atomic energy and am neither Democrat nor Republican. Perfect Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). U.S. needs to get updated on it’s nuclear/atomic energy with the most advanced reactors, just as India and China are 2 nations which are building the most advanced nuclear/atomic reactors. We must build Small Modular Reactors (SMR).

    People in both parties including ex President Obama who support nuclear/atomic energy as ex Pres. Obama during his 1st term gave loan guarantees for the U.S. to build nuclear atomic energy after many years. There are environmentalists who support nuclear energy. Michael Shellenberger is an environmentalist who supports nuclear power. The late environmentalist and actor Paul Leonard Newman (1925-2008) supported nuclear/atomic energy.

    Environmentalists who used to be anti-nuclear power but changed to support nuclear. The late Stephen Tindale formerly of Greenpeace U.K. used to be against nuclear/atomic energy talking about how bad it was but in 2010, the late Stephen Tindale supported nuclear/atomic energy. Patrick A. Moore who was 1 of the founders of Greenpeace used to be anti-nuclear (he left Greenpeace in 1986 because he differed with them) but since the 2000s, Patrick A. Moore supports nuclear/atomic energy and he has been condemned as an eco-Judas and Darth Vader by other environmentalists because he supports nuclear/atomic energy.

    We must use nuclear/atomic energy, along with hydroelectric dams and geothermal. We must save fossil fuels. As natural gas has gotten cheaper & they keep finding more, natural gas will continue though we need to save this such as limit this for cars. President DJ Trump is wrong to promote coal and natural gas, when he should be promoting nuclear/atomic energy, but he has not done so far, while ex Pres. Obama again did promote nuclear/atomic energy when he gave loan approval to build new nuclear plants.

    Nuclear/atomic energy got sensationalized bad publicity after Fukushima where ideology defeated science with nations such as Germany and Switzerland phasing out nuclear and replacing them with dirty coal and natural gas. Italy canceled it’s new nuclear build plans. Nuclear/atomic energy has not gone away and 2 of the biggest Asian nations China and India have expanded nuclear/atomic energy with those 2 nations getting the most advanced nuclear powerplants. U.S. needs to bulid new nuclear, esp. as with nuclear/atomic power, they have figured out how to make more energy, using less Uranium which lasts longer and gives off less waste.

    India and China have for years built too many coal plants which is why those 2 nations are the worst when it comes to greenhouse gas pollutions. But the fact that China and India are both building hydroelectric dams and building nuclear powerplants shows that India and China are trying to get better.

  2. Leave it to Wyoming to pick storing horrible, poisonous material in our beautiful state, rather than allowing medical marijuana to be sold here…which would poison NO ONE and heal many. Kind of makes you question their actual motives doesn’t it?