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Nuclear waste bill defining state’s authority advances

The Naughton coal-fired power plant, pictured Jan. 19, 2022, will be retired in 2028 when TerraPower commences operations for its proposed Natrium nuclear reactor power plant at the same location. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

By Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

A bill to clarify Wyoming’s permitting authority over TerraPower’s proposed Natrium nuclear plant in Kemmerer is advancing in the budget session with broad support, despite a row over future taxation.

House Bill 131 – Nuclear power generation and storage-amendments,  sponsored by Rep. Donald Burkhart, Jr. (R-Rawlins), would repeal some portions and clarify other aspects of state statute that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission identified as potentially getting in the way of an ambitious federal permitting schedule.

The NRC’s concerns — outlined in an August 2021 letter — stem from a series of legislative actions years ago when Wyoming contemplated storing spent nuclear power waste from other states and the potential for small “modular” nuclear power reactors in the state. In doing so, Wyoming attempted to assert permitting authority in areas — including nuclear waste storage — that may conflict with the NRC’s authority in today’s Natrium power plant proposal, according to Burkhart.

Rep. Donald Burkhart, Jr. (R-Rawlins) at the State Capitol. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

One existing statute that HB 131 would amend requires that a permanent federal nuclear waste storage facility be funded before Wyoming considers permitting any temporary storage facility in the state. Another existing law that provides a regulatory pathway for modular-scale nuclear reactors potentially clouds the division of authority between the state and the NRC, Burkhart said.

“[HB 131] cleans that up so that the NRC has the final say, and they will do all the work necessary to license any [nuclear power] reactor and also the spent fuel rods that have to be stored onsite,” Burkhart told WyoFile.

The House advanced the bill on a voice vote Thursday and it was scheduled for a second reading on the House floor Friday. The bill included an amendment to include the number of Wyoming residents employed by the Natrium project in regular reporting to the state.

Tax exemption sunset

Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Laramie) proposed an amendment that would have created a 2035 sunset for an exemption to a $5-per-megawatt-hour production tax for commercial nuclear power. The amendment failed on the House floor Thursday.

“This gives new projects 13 years to get up and running while providing the state of Wyoming time to measure the return on investment of that exemption,” Sherwood said on the House floor before the amendment was voted down. “Not having seen justification on why this exemption is needed, I am highly suspicious of writing a blank check that goes on indefinitely for any industry.”

Burkhart said his opposition to the sunset amendment was based on the need to clarify definitions of “test,” “demonstration” and other categories of nuclear power reactors and how to tax various iterations of nuclear power generation.

The Natrium project is already in line for a substantial amount of subsidies from the federal government, Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) said. The U.S. Department of Energy, via the federal infrastructure bill, has committed to finance approximately $2 billion of the estimated $4 billion cost of Natrium’s project so far, according to TerraPower officials.

“On top of that, they want the state tax exemption,” Gray told his colleagues in the House. “I mean, this is like a walking giveaway, this project. I would do a lot more than this amendment. I think it’s pretty low-key to say 2035.”

State’s authority

House Bill 131 also has tentative support from some Wyoming conservation groups. Removing any doubt over the NRC’s authority in all matters regarding “radiological safety” is a good idea, Wyoming Outdoor Council Senior Conservation Advocate Steff Kessler told WyoFile.

Yet Wyoming needs to be careful not to cede any of its permitting authority and responsibilities related to most all other aspects of the project, she said. Myriad water quality, air quality and socioeconomic impacts of the project still fall under the authority of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Industrial Siting Council.

“Our primary interest in this bill is to make sure that Wyoming people and communities are fully protected and engaged in this process,” Kessler said.

The state could already be doing more to help inform Wyoming residents and encourage participation in the permitting and analysis of the Natrium project, she added.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.