Green River Star -

By Chris Andrews
Guest Columnist 

Newspaper editorial uninformed

 


As a Green River native, I was surprised and disappointed to read a recent editorial decrying the possibility of hosting a nuclear waste storage facility in Wyoming. I believe in the importance of basing scientific policy on hard data, and it seems to me that the opinion expressed in the editorial is informed more by fear than fact. I urge the Star to reconsider its position. I hope to take this opportunity to address the concerns raised in the editorial to the best of my limited ability. Although I would like to change their opinion, I would be just as happy to continue the broader conversation. This is an important issue, and Wyoming has the opportunity to take a genuine leadership role in a unique, valuable way. I applaud Wyoming lawmakers for taking this initial step, and for notifying the public early so that it might have a chance to engage in the process, express concerns and learn new things, and dispel harmful misconceptions that could cause Wyoming to miss out on a great opportunity.

The main reasons I believe Wyoming should proceed with examining the possibility of hosting a nuclear waste storage facility are:

1. the current challenges in safe, effective nuclear waste storage are almost entirely political, not technical

2. Wyoming is likely to accrue tremendous economic benefit by hosting a storage site; and

3. this idea gives Wyoming chance to show both its sense of national responsibility as well as its ability to lead the way in solving crucial challenges. With these reasons in mind, I will do my best to address the objections in the opinion piece clearly and concisely.

First, the piece states that the concept of consent-based siting has its origins in the now-stalled effort to create a permanent geologic repository beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. This is a misrepresentation of the history of consent-based siting. First, it should be reiterated that the idea of consent-based siting as such is relatively new. Previous attempts at establishing permanent waste repositories were top-down approaches, where federal agencies attempted to site facilities without direct input from the would-be host states and localities, as was the case for Yucca Mountain. That is not what would happen in Wyoming’s case. Although consent-based siting is a young concept, previous attempts at consent-based storage experiments have been remarkably successful, in contrast with the failed top-down efforts in the decades since. The earliest prototype for the consent-based model was Project Salt Vault, a demonstration of the safety and feasibility of storing high-level waste solids from nuclear power reactors in a decommissioned salt mine in Lyons, Kan. The project began in 1963, nearly 25 years before the government selected Yucca Mountain as the nation’s lone geologic repository. Project Salt Vault was a resounding success from both technical and policy standpoints. In an article entitled “U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere,” Robert Peltier explains that the success of Project Salt Vault could be attributed to four factors:

1. the experiment was temporary, meaning that the waste would be removed once it was finished.

2. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the group responsible for the project, did its work fully in the public eye without secrecy.

3. tours of the experiment were conducted, and the public had access to the mine.

4. local groups were consulted before the project began. In other words, the first successful trial of consent-based nuclear waste handling, albeit temporary, went off without a hitch. This historical example can provide a basic template for what a waste storage facility in Wyoming might look like.

In contrast to Project Salt Vault stands the snafu that is Yucca Mountain. Contrary to what the Star claimed, Yucca Mountain was not about consent-based siting. One may well argue that a large part of the failing in Yucca Mountain was that it did not have a consent-based approach, as was the case in Lyons, and which would be the case in Wyoming. Historical context is important in understanding where Yucca Mountain is today and why it is unlikely to change. In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which established the legal framework for formal study and selection of candidate sites for permanent geologic disposal of nuclear waste. Following on several recommendations by the Department of Energy in 1986, one of which was the Yucca Mountain site, Congress amended the NWPA in 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain as the sole site that would be subject to scientific evaluation. For more than a decade, what should have been a purely scientific attempt to solve one of the nation’s most pressing energy policy issues became a farcical, protracted political power-struggle, mired in emotional argumentation and fear-mongering on the part of opponents. Today, the project has effectively been mothballed, despite significant efforts and financial commitment on the part of various government agencies to begin site operation. As an illustration of that, consider the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF), a money pool created to fund site evaluation, selection, and operation costs. The idea was to have utilities companies contribute annually to the fund in order to have it available when the time came for opening the site. Utilities companies, passing the costs onto customers, paid more than $40 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund between 1983 and 2014. The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, established by President Obama in 2010, noted that during the NWF collection period, Congressional and Executive actions made the fund completely inaccessible to the companies that had paid into it. Collection was suspended in 2014 on the heels of a 2013 federal court ruling that the DOE could no longer collect for the fund because the government had failed to supply the promised repository. To put it another way, Americans have been fronting the cost of a legally suspended project for more than three decades with nothing but political gridlock to show for it, and the problem remains unsolved. Am I to believe that the Star is in favor of drawn out, wasteful projects that have high costs and zero tangible results?

The editorial continues by highlighting Wyoming’s natural beauty, which I personally agree is unmatched anywhere in the country. Yet the Star seems to ignore a number of important details. First, it seems as if the Star pictures a nuclear waste storage facility perched atop a national monument or dug out of the middle of protected wilderness. Do the staff think readers will be fooled into conflating beautiful landscapes with industrial construction, and think that the two will be intermingled? Second, and in a similar vein, the Star seems to ignore the foundations of its own hometown: mines and railroads.

What would the Star have thought if it had seen the construction of the first transcontinental railroad snaking its way through the Green River basin? Would the Star have opposed the sinking of the first shafts at the trona mines west of town? Do they think the people of Green River would be better off without their two strongest economic drivers? Additionally, a nuclear waste storage facility need not have a large above-ground footprint. It would almost certainly be smaller than any of the surface facilities of the soda ash plants in the patch. For example, consider that the Andrews County, Texas, waste storage site, one of just four low-level waste disposal sites in the entire country, has a footprint of under 1350 acres. Compare that with the 65 federal sodium leases in Wyoming, which the Bureau of Land Management states contain a total of roughly 84,000 acres. This is to say nothing of any of the other mines and industrial facilities across the state. Why are these sites held to a lower aesthetic standard than a potential waste storage facility? Why is the Star content with their continued operation, especially considering their own substantial environmental impacts?

The editorial piece rightly observes that radioactive waste remains hot for many thousands of years after its creation, and contaminating spills would cause significant damage to the environment. Accordingly, a potential storage site would need to be precisely engineered, and it would be highly dependent on geology for long-term viability, whether the site is shallow burial or a deep, permanent geologic repository. (Although I believe a long-term geologic repository is an unlikely outcome, I will include it here because at the moment legislators are examining the issue at a very high level and it should not be excluded yet.) As it turns out, not only does Wyoming have a proven track record of successful industrial engineering, it also has many potentially geologically favorable sites that are safe, accessible, located away from populations, and which would not significantly compromise the integrity of the surrounding landscape. My favorite example of such a potential site is one with which Green River locals are intimately familiar: the trona patch. Previous and ongoing experiments have established that certain geologies have benefits and risks in terms of their ability to contain radioactive waste in the long term. Among the most favorable geologies are salts, which tend to undergo plastic deformation and a kind of self-healing in the presence of hot radioactive waste (initially proven in Project Salt Vault), and oil shale, which has a remarkably low permeability and would form an excellent long-term seal for soluble radionuclides. The trona patch is made of alternating layers of carbonate salts (trona) and oil shale, among other things. Of course, it is far too early in the process to declare the trona mines the future hosts of nuclear waste for all time. I offer this possibility as just one small example of the way Wyoming may offer to help solve the nuclear waste problem. Nonetheless, Sweetwater County’s favorable host geology is a good reason to consider it as a potential site.

To add to this argument, consider a precedent for such a potential site that already has a proven track record of success: the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). WIPP is a deep geologic repository run by the Department of Energy to permanently store defense nuclear wastes. The site makes use of a previously-constructed salt mine near Carlsbad, N.M.. The salt mine and surrounding area have remarkable similarities to the trona mines and communities of Green River and Rock Springs. The people of Carlsbad take pride in their storage facility, which is a premier employer in the area that provides a secure source of employment and economic growth. They were given an opportunity much like what Wyoming has now, and they have since capitalized on it. What’s more, a potential site in the trona mines would have the added advantage of making shipment of nuclear wastes easier and less risky because of Green River’s location on a major interstate and railroad thoroughfare. Rather than play on fears and misunderstanding of what is a complex but well-studied issue, the Star ought to recognize the value of Wyoming’s unique geology, and it should embrace this chance to give Wyoming a major role in solving a very real problem, and to reap the long-term benefits of such a site.

At the very least, the Star ought to recognize that the decision to name one of these potential locations as a waste storage site should be based purely on scientific evaluation and informed consent of locals in the area, not on fear-based prima facie rejection of a plan that has not been explored in any detail. Rejection outright without at least developing an informed survey and objective evaluation is nothing short of irresponsible. At present, the demand for safe and effective permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel is high. Alarmingly, current methods involve dry, above-ground concrete casks, not unlike large carwash vacuum cleaners sitting on concrete pads. These casks, although remarkably well engineered, are specifically designed to act as interim storage devices until a permanent disposal solution is found. Yet they are the main option for the roughly 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel and 90 million gallons of high-level reprocessing waste in need of a permanent home in this country. It is backward to express concern for the health and safety of future generations and the environment in the event of a below-ground leak, and then ignore the possible implications of a leak from a cask that sits in the open air. Without a permanent storage site, that is the concern that we face.

Some may believe that since Wyoming does not have any nuclear power plants of its own, the problem of storing nuclear waste should be left to those who create it. While this petty isolationism would be senseless in itself, it is also an inaccurate representation of Wyoming’s role in the US nuclear fuel cycle. In fact, a brief examination of that role shows that Wyoming stands to benefit in a unique way from a solution to the nuclear waste storage problem. While Wyoming’s uranium mining industry is a shadow of its former self, the state still has the largest uranium reserves in the country. Historically, Wyoming has produced uranium in the form of yellowcake, which has been used in nuclear power production in the United States. Wyoming has thus directly contributed to the problem of nuclear waste. In that regard, Wyoming has as much responsibility as any other state to attempt to solve the problem. Additionally, Wyoming may stand to benefit because the problem of nuclear waste has formed a sort of bottleneck in American nuclear power production. If that problem is solved in a safe, effective way, one major public barrier to increased nuclear power production will be cleared.

This may very well increase demand in the badly hurting uranium market, meaning that Wyoming could once again take center stage as a supplier of a valuable natural resource, as it has done for years with coal, soda ash, and others. Would the Star really prefer to shove away the state’s responsibility to solve this serious national problem, while simultaneously placing an unnecessary handicap on Wyoming’s economic opportunities on both the front and back ends of the fuel cycle?

The editorial concludes by denouncing any potential benefits of a waste storage site as “short-term,” yet it fails to even speculate about what such a benefit might look like. Although the project is still very early on in the idea phase, a brief look into the financial gain that the state might enjoy is still worthwhile. While an exact dollar amount is difficult to pinpoint so early on in the timeline, we might at least consider what the upper bound might be. The New York Times in 2014 noted that, according to industry estimates, the size of the nuclear waste disposal market was $30 billion. Rod Baltzer, president and CEO of Waste Control Specialists which operates the radioactive waste storage site in Andrews County, Texas, noted that ten previous attempts from around the country to open a waste storage facility had accrued a total cost of approximately $1 billion—a high barrier to entry, yet a small fraction of the size of the potential market. The Andrews County site is a testament to the benefit that the county and state receive from a share in that market. In 2015, the Texas Tribune noted that Andrews County received approximately 5 percent of gross receipts to the facility, amounting to roughly $5 million in direct payments. Another 25 percent of those receipts went directly to the state of Texas. Further, in recent months, the site has sought to expand its capacity, which would mean increased revenue from waste storage fees. What’s more, the market has so few players that a site in Wyoming would almost immediately become cost-effective, and then some. Perhaps most promising about the waste storage market is that it is likely to grow. At present, there are 99 nuclear power plants in the United States, with three plants in Illinois and California slated to close, and nearly a dozen more in planning and/or construction phases.

At worst, the U.S. looks to tread water in terms of nuclear power production for the foreseeable future, meaning that the demand for off-site waste storage is here to stay.

Does the Star believe that the state (and chosen county) should voluntarily reject a substantial share of what promises to be a serious, long-term source of economic growth?

Would it prefer to have that money, coming from nuclear sites in 34 states across the nation, flow into Texas instead of Wyoming? Would it prefer that other states enjoy a sustained increase in employment that would accompany a waste storage site?

I believe a quotation by Mr. Baltzer, albeit about the state of Texas, accurately reflects the situation that Wyoming faces in its chance to show its leadership potential: “We’ve got a unique environment and a unique state, and I think they understand the risks and the technical challenges. But they also know that with the proper regulatory oversight and the proper technology that you can overcome those.” A potential nuclear waste storage site could be a tremendous boon for the entire state, giving it a chance at another strong industry, as well as a role in helping to solve one of the nation’s most pressing issues. I urge the Star, and any who reject the possibility of a storage facility outright, to reexamine their opinions in light of the evidence of safety and the likelihood of benefit that they would receive with such a site. At the very least, support the surveying project and withhold judgment until sufficient data have been collected.

The risks are substantially smaller than many seem to perceive, and the benefits are much larger than they suppose.

 

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