The calls came from New England, Arizona, and Colorado. Besides Wyoming, these are places that I have relatives and friends. These people know at least a little about my background. The questions ran along the lines of, “So, Tom, what’s this about Wyoming offering to become the repository for the nation’s nuclear waste?”
I would reply something like, “Well, it’s not quite like that, but let me do some asking around, and try to figure this out.”
I started opposing all things nuclear at age fifteen in New Hampshire, in the late ‘70s. I marched with thousands of people, sometimes through tidal salt marshes, to oppose the Seabrook Nuclear Plant.
“No nukes!” we shouted.
Here, the two most commonly suggested storage sites are the Gas Hills, east of Riverton, and the Shirley Basin, south of Casper. They say no one ever goes to those places, but I have in pursuit of elk and deer antlers, and I’ve found some really nice ones.
Nowadays, a state’s reputation, accurate or not, travels fast and can change swiftly. Wyoming has breathtaking views and lots of wildlife. We attract a many tourists, retirees, and second-home investors, and this market has barely begun to be tapped. Let’s guard our reputation and not scare them off.
Who would have thought that Colorado, a place of massive mining pollution and violent labor disputes, could turn around its reputation? Then, in 1971, the album “Rocky Mountain High” came out. Although some Wyomingites disparage Colorado for all kinds of awful things, real or imagined, its global image and appeal are based on stunning visuals and hopes and dreams, and activities and pleasures that reach the status of holy catharsis! And, incidentally, they make money.
This Colorado sketch is important to Wyoming because we have most of the attributes that Colorado has; we are also in the Rocky Mountains. If we sully our image and reputation, as with nuclear waste, it will cost us.
This brings up the damage that some of Wyoming’s legislators have already done to our state. State Senator Jim Anderson of Casper, co-chairman of the Joint Minerals, Business, and Economic Development Committee, along with six other legislators, all Republicans, organized an outcome-predetermined “study” for storing some of the nation’s nuclear waste.
With Nevada’s huge Yucca Mountain permanent-storage facility closed because it is geologically unstable, more of the nation’s nuclear waste is being stored at the 98 nuclear plants scattered around the country. Some of these are close to metropolitan areas, and several, like Seabrook, are right at sea level — today’s sea level. Nuclear plants are not designed to store their own waste, and it is believed that this would compound damage in the event of a reactor meltdown. Naturally, this could never happen; nor would the Titanic sink.
This has led to proposals, in sparsely populated parts of Texas and New Mexico, for the 40-year “temporary” storage of nuclear waste. A potential cottage industry in babysitting radioactive kids has developed, and “temporary” is code for “Screw the future.” Back in July, Senator Anderson claimed that Wyoming could partake in this federal pork, and bring in $1 billion dollars per year. That figure has since been adjusted to $5 million to $10 million, although even this figure would be dependent upon yearly Congressional allocations.
On Nov. 5, I attended a meeting at Casper College to listen to a legislative discussion on a working-draft proposal, for the Legislature to write a bill authorizing money for negotiations with the Department of Energy (DOE), to store nuclear waste on my antler collecting grounds. There were about 90 people in the room, about half, the grumbling ones, were there to speak against the bill. Some 40 minutes were allocated, at the end of the meeting, for this annoying formality. Note, this was not to be an open-minded discussion on the merits and demerits of storing nuclear waste, those issues had already been determined.
Surprises happen, however, and when it was announced that the proposal had just been withdrawn, a sigh of relief filled the room. For many of us, it was an unexpected Rocky Mountain High!
The quickly growing and vehement opposition might have surprised and scared people like Senator Anderson. The stated reason for the withdrawal, however, was that attorneys had suddenly determined that the governor does not require legislative approval to pursue discussions and negotiations with the DOE. The governor will probably do just that, though he will be constrained in the amount of money he can spend in the effort, so stay tuned as little has changed.
Tom Gagnon has been an explorer and avid outdoorsman in the Rocky Mountain area for 33 years. He lives in Rock Springs.