Lawmakers name all-GOP nuclear fuel storage study team

Sen. Jim Anderson (R-Casper), co-chairman of the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee, on Monday provided the names of the seven legislators who will investigate whether Wyoming should pursue storing spent nuclear fuel. 

In addition to Anderson, the study subcommittee is made up of Sens. Hank Coe (R-Cody) and Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) and Reps. Tom Crank (R-Kemmerer), Shelly Duncan (R-Lingle), Joe MacGuire (R-Casper) and Donald Burkhart (R-Rawlins). All but Bebout are members of the Minerals Committee.

The Legislature’s management council two weeks ago narrowly authorized the joint minerals committee to study the issue, but not actually pursue a permit. Similar projects are underway in Texas and New Mexico, Anderson said.

The subcommittee is still in the process of contacting the federal Department of Energy, hoping to set up a meeting in September, Anderson told WyoFile. Business among committee members so far has been done via emails, he said.

As legislators study how Wyoming might boost revenue by temporarily storing spent nuclear fuel, officials may look to Texas and New Mexico where two such projects are undergoing U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission review.

 Near the west-Texas town of Andrews, population 13,472, Interim Storage Partners LLC has applied to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a permit to store up to 5,000 metric tons of uranium for 40 years. About 40 miles west in New Mexico, Holtec is seeking permission to store 500 canisters of spent nuclear fuel in Lea County as the first phase of a 20-stage project. That permit would also be for 40 years.

Good feedback

 “I’ve had a lot of feedback, good feedback,” Anderson said, “on the prospect of bringing in money…on places to put it. I’m really pleased with people who say they would place it at their location.”

No sites other than potential locations in the Gas Hills East of Riverton and Shirley Basin south of Casper have emerged, he said. Both are sites of uranium mines.

Among the comments he received, Anderson said, were a number that touted “how good it would be for the state.” He has told WyoFile a project could bring $1 billion annually. Such revenue would be welcomed considering the decline of coal operations in Wyoming — most recently underscored by the possible closing of two large open-pit mines outside Gillette by Blackjewel.

A site plan for the proposed facility to store spent nuclear fuel in west Texas. (Interim Storage Partners/Waste Control Specialists/Orano CIS/NRC)

“People were willing to discuss it,” Anderson said, which he said he found encouraging. “That’s not saying they would do it,” but the opportunity for a conversation is heartening, he said. “Fair enough.”

The assignment from the Management Council came on a 7-6 unannounced email vote on July 8. Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), who opposed the assignment and associated funding, said he would fight the measure on the floor of the Senate.

Anderson told WyoFile two weeks ago that casks containing spent nuclear fuel rods would be “cleaner than the natural atmosphere in these locations,” referring to the Gas Hills and Shirley Basin. The public, “they’ll never see it and there’s no danger from the casks,” he said.

This week he again predicted opposition — from “environmental crazies.”

“There’s a lot of things to decide,” Anderson said Monday, emphasizing the exploratory nature of the committee’s assignment. While he’s seen a Wyoming application for storing nuclear material that was proposed in 1992, the committee won’t be working at that level.

“We’re not doing all those [environmental impact statements],” he said.

98 operating reactors

The spent fuel would come from some of the 98 operating nuclear reactors in the U.S. that produce about 20% of the country’s electricity. There’s no permanent place to store the spent fuel. Congressional approval in 2002 of Yucca Mountain in Western Nevada as the nation’s nuclear waste repository was followed by years of controversy and protest. Federal funding for the site ended in 2011. 

Meantime 62,683 metric tons (one metric ton is 2,205 pounds) of spent nuclear fuel accumulated through 2009, according to the Congressional Research Service, increasing by 2,000 to 2,400 tons annually. Seventy-eight percent is stored in pools and 22% in dry casks.

The basic design of a concrete cask holding spent nuclear fuel. (Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry)

Without the use of Yucca Mountain the NRC is accepting applications for temporary storage sites. “Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing debate about the proposed Yucca Mountain geologic waste repository in Nevada, the storage of spent nuclear fuel —also referred to as ‘high-level nuclear waste’ — will continue to be needed and the issue will continue to be debated,” the Congressional Research Service wrote in 2012.

Spent fuel projects are already underway in Texas and New Mexico, Anderson told WyoFile. Both projects are considered away-from-reactor interim storage facilities and would hold spent nuclear fuel rods in dry casks, according to applications for permits being processed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

When Yucca Mountain stalled, a blue-ribbon commission recommended developing interim facilities for storing spent nuclear fuel, according to a 2012 article in “The Bridge,” a publication of the National Academy of Engineering. Even before that, industry had started examining alternatives because of crowding in storage pools.

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“Spent fuel assemblies that have decayed sufficiently, thereby emitting less heat, can be transferred to dry storage systems consisting either of thick-walled metal casks bolted closed with metallic seals or thin-walled canisters surrounded by a metal or concrete outer shell for shielding,” the article, “Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel,” reads. “Both casks and canisters are passively cooled by ambient air.” By 2012, 13,000 metric tons of heavy metal — spent fuel — had been placed in above-ground dry storage systems, the article stated.

“The NRC reviews the safety, environmental, physical security and financial aspects of the licensee and proposed [Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation] and, if we conclude it can operate safely, we issue a license,” the NRC writes on its website. The license imposes requirements for leak testing and monitoring and specifies how much of what type of material could be stored. Permits are for 20 years and can be renewed to enable storage up to a total of 40 years.

In Texas, Interim Storage Partners LLC is proposing a storage project that would cost an estimated $170 million, according to NRC documents. It would cost another $394 million to operate the site for 40 years. Waste Control Specialists and partner Orano CIS LLC expect to secure those funds from “a future contract” with the Department of Energy, which would be its only customer, according to documents.

The 14,000-acre site would be adjacent to an existing radioactive waste disposal facility operated by Waste Control Specialists and located 32 miles west of Andrews, Texas. The storage site would be a “start-clean/stay-clean” facility, operated without opening canisters, according to the companies’ application.

A diagram of the proposed development shows the initial 5,000 metric tons could be the first of an eight-phase project, each phase holding a similar amount of radioactive material. The site could hold a total of 40,000 metric tons, according to the diagram and reporting by the Odessa American.

“Waste canisters will not be opened, so the spent nuclear fuel will not be exposed to the [Consolidated Interim Storage Facility] facilities, water, air or the surrounding environment,” the application states. “Therefore, the likelihood of a contamination event is considered very low and unlikely.”

Decommissioning the site would cost $12.6 million, according to the filing. Waste management is poised to submit its last filings to the NRC to resolve permit questions by Jan 31, 2020, according to permit documents.

Meanwhile, 40 miles away

In nearby New Mexico, an alliance of city, county and private interests is pursuing authorization for the HI-STORE Central Interim Storage facility for spent fuel and reactor parts. The consortium is made up of Hobbs and Carlsbad cities and Eddy and Lea counties.

ELEA Inc, a name derived from the counties’ names, owns “a large parcel of presently unused land,” where the site would be located, according to permit filings made public by the NRC. The governments formed the entity in 2006 and have Holtec International as a partner that is applying for the permit to build and operate the site.

Two New Mexico cities and two counties are teaming with Holtec International to construct a subterranean storage site, as depicted in Holtec documents made public by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Holtec/NRC)

Five hundred canisters would be stored underground in the first phase, according to the company’s application. Holtec envisions another 19 phases of 500 canisters each, for a total of 10,000 canisters, according to the filing.

All told, the facility would cover 1,045 acres and store 173,600 metric tons of material, each stage of 500 casks holding 8,680 metric tons. The actual storage area would cover 288 acres of the site.

There are some 86,683 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel awaiting storage today, according to WyoFile calculations, based on Congressional Research Service numbers from 2012. 

The first phase of the New Mexico project alone would cost an estimated $233.3 million to construct, documents show. Annual operating costs are estimated at $27.3 million and decommissioning would cost an estimated $23.7 million.

Excavation would go as deep as 25 feet, the application states. Casks would be at least 400 meters from the boundary of a controlled area. The center of the site is 1.5 miles from the nearest human settlement, a ranch, and fewer than 20 persons typically live within 6 miles of the site, according to public documents.

Not in my backyard

Both sites face opposition, including from New Mexico’s governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat. She wrote Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in June objecting to the ELEA-Holtec project. Her opposition reverses previous support from Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican whom she replaced this year.

“A facility of this nature poses an unacceptable risk to New Mexicans,” Grisham wrote. “Establishing an interim storage facility in this region would be economic malpractice.  Any disruption of agricultural or oil and gas activities as a result of a perceived or actual incident would be catastrophic to New Mexico.”

Nuclear cask endurance testing

Lea and Eddy counties generate $300 million a year in agricultural business, she said. The two counties were second and sixth respectively, among oil-producing counties in the country, her letter stated.

“Any steps toward siting such a project could cause a decrease in investment in two of our states biggest industries,” the governor’s letter reads. The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association all sent her letters opposing the project, Grisham wrote.

The project would burden the state with costly infrastructure upgrades to support transportation of nuclear material. New Mexico would have to enhance emergency response teams, Grisham’s letter states.

Instead of a temporary storage site, she wrote that the plan was for “an indefinite storage facility.

“Over this [40-year] time it is likely that the casks storing [spent nuclear fuel] and high-level wastes will lose integrity and will require repackaging,” the governor wrote. “Repackaging…increases the risk of accidents and radiological health risks,” the letter reads.

In West Texas residents also protested the storage site near Andrews, according to the Odessa American. Three administrative judges for the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board were scheduled to hear from more than a dozen groups and individuals, according to the NRC. Arguments were expected from Interim Storage Partners, Sierra Club and San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, among others.

A day before the scheduled hearing, residents gathered to protest and a Midland County Commissioner submitted a statement opposing the project, according to the American. He wrote that it would only be a matter of time before an accident or act of terrorism “makes West Texas another Chernobyl,” according to the newspaper. Project proponents defended the proposal and application as responsible.

A mother living in Andrews also spoke against the project, the American reported. “The people of Andrews do not want this,” the newspaper quoted Elizabeth Padilla as saying. “They do not want this in their backyards. We do not want this in our children’s backyards.”

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