Lawmakers take no action on nuclear fuel storage plan
October 31, 2019
CHEYENNE — Legislators took no action on a plan to store spent nuclear fuel rods within Wyoming – and heard about a possible alternative use of the rods – during a committee meeting Tuesday in Casper.
Discussion of the plan was spurred by a bill that would have authorized the governor to negotiate with the U.S. Department of Energy over the storage. But Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, pulled the bill during the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee’s meeting.
“I found out that we really don’t need to give the governor’s office the authority to discuss this with the DOE – that they have the authority to do that right now,” said Anderson, who co-chairs the committee.
Though the legislative go-ahead was unnecessary, Anderson said he was unaware of any current or upcoming negotiations between Gov. Mark Gordon and the Department of Energy.
Michael Pearlman, spokesman for the governor’s office, said there have been no talks between Gordon and the department. There is no time frame for the governor to make a decision on how to proceed, Pearlman said.
Last week, Gordon said he would wait to see the committee’s findings before making any decision.
“I don’t think it’s the best industry for Wyoming,” Gordon told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “But I would say this emphatically: If there is a good reason to do it, and we have adequate safeguards, though personally I may not feel it’s the best industry for Wyoming, I’m not going to stand in its way.”
Anderson said the state began exploring the possibility due to the budget crisis facing the state over the next few years.
“Our burn rate on our savings is pretty high,” Anderson said. “If we don’t bring in some more revenue to the state – and more revenue, I mean, is like half a billion to a billion dollars – then we’re going to have to start cutting K-12 education.”
During a public comment period for the plan, several people spoke against the proposal, which Anderson said could bring more than 100 million pounds of nuclear waste to the state. Colleen Whalen, spokeswoman for Wyoming Against Nuclear Dumps, said she worried about safety risks associated with transporting the casks.
“After a year out of the reactor, the waste is deadly in seven seconds,” Whalen said. “Should the cask be breached, seven seconds (and) you’re dead.”
Anderson, while presenting the findings of a spent fuel rods subcommittee, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ensured the group of the precautions taken during transportation and storage of the spent fuel rods.
“The NRC is very proud of the safety records over the last 35 years,” Anderson said. “It goes back farther than that, but there was a learning curve in the first 10 or 15 years of their existence. There have been no storage or transportation accidents in all that 35 years.”
Following discussion of the nuclear storage plan, legislators heard a report on a possible alternative destination for the spent fuel rods: a thorium-based power plant.
Vikram Singh and Taran Sondhu, engineers for Alabama-based Filbe Energy, explained how the state could become a leader in the nascent thorium-based energy industry.
“While coal has been very generous to Wyoming’s fortunes, her story does not have to be married to coal, and her story certainly does not have to extinguish with coal’s waning popularity,” Singh said.
Thorium does not produce carbon dioxide emissions, meaning Wyoming could send thorium-based energy to states like California that have restrictive emissions standards, Singh said.
“When I first heard the state Legislature was looking seriously to store spent fuel in Wyoming, let’s just say it did not evoke a sense of great enthusiasm,” Singh said. “But I also wanted to reach out because I knew our technology could help.”
Thorium is the only way to destroy nuclear waste permanently, Singh added.
“Without such technology that can provide a permanent fix to the spent fuel problem, I would not personally advocate that this stuff be stored in Wyoming,” Singh said. “At the end of the day, of course, it is the Legislature’s prerogative.”
Following the report, Rep. Donald Burkhart Jr., R-Rawlins, asked the representatives from Flibe Energy what they were proposing.
“We are looking to build first-of-a-kind reactors within the next five to six years, and hopefully at the end of the next decade, we’ll have first-of-a-kind reactors producing power,” Singh said.
Following their report, Whalen said reprocessing nuclear fuel is illegal in the United States, but Anderson responded there is no law prohibiting it.
“We can do it,” Anderson said. “Every other country ... they’re all reprocessing spent fuel rods to use for other things.”
Pearlman said the governor thinks the thorium option is worth looking at, though he’s unsure if it will be financially feasible.
This week’s meeting was the last one scheduled for the committee before the legislative session begins Feb. 10.