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Will Russian uranium fuel Wyoming’s new nuclear plant? War in Ukraine colors Equality State yellowcake debate

CASPER, Wyo. — Kemmerer, Wyoming has been selected as the preferred site for TerraPower’s ~$4 billion Natrium nuclear reactor demonstration project. Where will the uranium come from to fuel the 345 MW sodium-cooled fast reactor that is in development?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine colored debate in the Wyoming House of Representatives on Monday as the House discussed legislation relating to the operation of “advanced” nuclear reactors and storage of nuclear waste in Wyoming. House Bill 131 is being considered in anticipation of the new Natrium reactor project.

“I really do want a specific answer from somebody: is this definitely not going to be Russian uranium at this site?” Rep. Chuck Gray (Natrona County) asked during debate on the House floor Monday.

Russian company Tenex is the only company that produces a commercial supply of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), they type of uranium needed for the Natrium reactor, according to the American Nuclear Society. Limited HALEU fuel is available in the United States through the Department of Energy and the DOE is working on both short and long term solutions to increase the HALEU supply, including a partnership with Centrus Energy to bring an enrichment facility online in Ohio.

Gray, along with Rep. Karlee Provenza (Albany County) and Rep. Trey Sherwood (Albany), sponsored an amendment to House Bill 131 to require advanced nuclear reactors in Wyoming to source its HALEU fuel from uranium mined in Wyoming “to the maximum extent possible.”

“We want to make sure this is going to be domestic uranium, it is not going to be Russian uranium and it is going to be Wyoming uranium,” Gray said of the amendment, arguing that the federal government and advanced nuclear reactor operates want to see advanced nuclear come online and would therefore find ways to comply with Wyoming law stipulating the preference for domestically sourced uranium.

Some members of the House argued that it would be problematic to stipulate where the uranium to be used in Wyoming nuclear plants must be mined. Rep. Scott Heiner (Lincoln, Sweetwater, Uinta) said that the regulation would be similar to requiring gasoline used in vehicles to come specifically from Wyoming crude oil.

“That would be ridiculous,” Heiner said, noting that refineries blend crude oil from a variety of sources.

He argued that the legislature should not be in the business of picking winners and losers and should instead allow the market to operate freely.

“Through this type of legislation, we shouldn’t be trying to impose a tariff on Russia,” Heiner said. “That’s not for Wyoming to do.”

Rep. Pat Sweeney (Natrona) also argued against the amendment requiring nuclear reactors in Wyoming to use Wyoming mined uranium as much as possible. Sweeney said his hope is that Wyoming can help lead the development of the nascent advanced nuclear energy in a way that will lead to more domestic uranium production and enrichment.

“I don’t think anybody in this body, today in particular and over the last week, is in favor of Russia doing the enrichment,” Sweeney said. “And of course we’re not trying to send anything their way … I am hoping that this discussion leads us to a point where the enrichment in the yellowcake can happen in the United States and in Converse County and the enrichment plant [can] possibly [be located] some place in the state. No one is saying we want to support Russia in any manner.”

Rep. Aaron Clausen (Converse) argued in favor of the amendment to require Wyoming uranium be used as much as possible. He said that domestic uranium production takes care of only a small percentage of demand because production in other countries can be done more cheaply due to less stringent reclamation requirements at mining sites. Clausen expressed a desire to see more domestic production, saying that his House District has the largest uranium mine in the lower 48 states and was also among potential sites TerraPower looked at for the Natrium project.

Rep. Art Washut (Natrona) argued against the amendment, saying that he thinks the need to buy yellowcake for the Natrium project remains years away.

“Who knows what the geopolitical world is going to look like by the time we are ready to buy uranium,” Washut said. “Why would we put this limitation on now?”

TerraPower has said it plans to apply for a construction permit with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-2023 and expects to bring the plant online within seven years.

Rep. Mark Jennings (Sheridan) said he was in favor of the amendment, arguing that he sees a moral need to avoid supporting Russia economically. Jennings said he is generally in favor of free markets but said that he does not if those markets benefit a government that does not protect people’s freedoms.

“They’ll step on them and they’ll squash them,” Jennings said, alluding to Russia’s disregard for human rights”… How much do we want to support people who do not support free markets or free people?”

Rep. Donald Burkhart Jr. (Carbon County), House Bill 131’s primary sponsor and chair of the House Transportation, Highways & Military Affairs Committee, questioned when to define uranium mined in the state as “Wyoming uranium” since a foreign company could operate in the state.

“If you have a company from a foreign country producing uranium in Wyoming, does it make it Wyoming uranium?” Burkhart Jr. asked. “Does it make it that foreign country’s product or who?”

Burkhart Jr. also said that requiring advanced nuclear operators to use Wyoming mined uranium to the “maximum extent possible” as proposed by the amendment is a vague concept that wouldn’t necessarily guarantee Wyoming mined uranium actually gets used. He also said there may be issues with requiring the uranium to have been mined in the state since refiners producing HALEU may reprocess uranium from a variety of sources, in a similar way to how oil refineries rely on multiple sources of crude.

The House defeated the amendment to require operators of nuclear plants to use Wyoming mined uranium as much as possible on a vote of 28-30. Two other amendments to House Bill 131 were also debated on Monday.

Provenza and Gray offered an amendment that would require that a long-term nuclear waste storage facility be permitted and sited before nuclear reactor projects could move forward in the state.

Burkhart argued that the amendment “confuses the issue of nuclear power versus commercial waste storage.” He said that House Bill 131 aimed to keep in place laws preventing a company coming into the state and setting up a nuclear waste storage facility without controls. The bill also aims to separate out regulations pertaining to nuclear reactors from those pertaining to nuclear waste storage facilities.

The proposed legislation allows for storage of radioactive materials at the site of a nuclear power plant.

Rep. Bill Fortner (Campbell) said that he was in favor of the amendment that would require a long term storage facility. He said that the state faces billions of dollars in costs to clean up coal ash pits because it failed to set up requirements to protect against heavy metals leeching into aquifers.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for coal, i’m a retired coal miner,” Fortner said. “But this is the consequence we are looking at.”

Fortner said he wants to avoid a situation in which the state finds itself on the hook for nuclear waste or uranium clean up costs as is occurring with coal.

Larsen argued that he thinks nuclear waste would not lead to clean up costs from materials leeching into the environment as nuclear waste is sealed into casts that can be “handled without any type of breach,” even in the event of a cast falling during transportation.

Larsen also argued that storage of nuclear waste at a nuclear plant constitutes long term storage without the need for a separate long term storage facility. On the other hand, he said that the legislature could look at potentially making space in Wyoming available as a long term storage solution for the country.

Heiner argued that advanced nuclear technology will have less nuclear waste than traditional plants and that nuclear waste in general does not take up a lot of space. He argued against the long term storage facility requirement and said: “Let’s be business friendly, let’s be energy friendly and give it an opportunity to develop here in Wyoming.”

Porvenza said that the she thinks the state should have assurances about the long-term storage of nuclear waste before proceeding to allow the development of nuclear plants in Wyoming.

“We need to be smart about how we do this,” Provenza said. “… We don’t want to just jump forward and then have no solution for long-term storage.”

The House defeated the amendment to require a long term storage facility be permitted and sited before nuclear power plant projects could advance in the state.

Sherwood offered an amendment to impose a sunset to tax exemptions on advanced nuclear reactor operators in the state, proposing that the tax exemptions expire July 1, 2037. She said that the exemptions could be extended if they appear to effectively help create jobs in the state but that the legislature would be denying itself the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the tax exemption by not including a sunset date.

After some debate, the House defeated this amendment on a tie 28-28 vote.

The House will consider House Bill 131 on one further reading. If it passes on third reading, the bill will move to the Senate for consideration.

Read More: Will Russian uranium fuel Wyoming’s new nuclear plant? War in Ukraine colors Equality State yellowcake debate

2022-02-28 16:15:50

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