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UW researchers to study potential environmental injustices surrounding nuclear development at Kemmerer

The proposed plan for the TerraPower nuclear plant in Kemmerer.
TerraPower
TerraPower will build its Natrium demonstration reactor at a retiring coal plant in Wyoming.

As Wyoming sets its sights on nuclear development, a team of University of Wyoming researchers will study how one project impacts environmental justice.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded the team an $800,000 grant to span the course of three years. This is the first time the DOE is funding a study that looks at how nuclear energy affects environmental justice. The grant will focus on these effects on the TerraPower nuclear project in Kemmerer. The goal is to take a proactive approach and identify potential environmental injustices before they happen.

Lead researcher Rachael Budowle said environmental justice means that specific populations should not experience inequalities because of development – this can include things like, water and air quality, and even access to economic opportunities.

“So, nuclear energy in particular, has historically presented a range of social, environmental and ethical challenges that also warrant exploration, around public perception, safety, trust, and industry and government responsibility for waste and accidents,” Budowle said.

Budowle said an example of environmental injustice in Wyoming is on the Wind River Reservation. The Susquehanna Western uranium mill operated from 1958 to 1963 and left behind nearly 1.8 million cubic yards of radioactive waste. In 2010, the DOE reported that uranium levels in many nearby wells spiked to 100 times the legal limit and similar issues continue to this day.

“That community is still experiencing the impacts from a decommissioned uranium mill, and the toxic tailings that remain from that and continue to leach into the groundwater,” she said.

Budowle said including Native Americans in this project is important given past injustices.

Another potential injustice she anticipates is people losing their jobs, as prior to the nuclear facility opening, several coal fired plants will be decommissioned.

“There really are real implications for Wyoming communities that have been hit hard due to the economic crisis and energy transition that has occurred over the past couple of years,” she said.

Budowle said the first part of the research will include understanding the history and industrial culture of Kemmerer.

“We're trying to take this energy ethics approach, and really hear this from the ground up,” she said. “So trying not to assume things beyond what we know in past environmental injustices due to the nuclear fuel cycle.”

In the second year, researchers will interview a wide range of stakeholders and then provide recommendations to the state and TerraPower.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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