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.”
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?