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Rebecca Leier, with the North Dakota Community Alliance, speaks to members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Friday, Feb. 8, at the state capitol in Bismarck about adding amendments to Senate Bill 2037 to protect the public interest in the storage of high-level radioactive waste in the state. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

Changes sought to ND high-level radioactive waste bill

BISMARCK -- A citizen group urged legislators on Friday, Feb. 8, to let counties retain zoning authority over high-level radioactive waste facilities.

The suggestion was one of several amendments promoted by the North Dakota Community Alliance for a bill that relates to regulations of nuclear waste storage and disposal.

The group of Pierce County residents formed in 2016 after the U.S. Department of Energy proposed to drill an exploratory borehole near Rugby. Residents believe that, if the test had been successful, the federal government would have used eminent domain to establish a nuclear waste repository, said Rebecca Leier, a member of the alliance.

The Pierce County Commission halted the project by establishing a moratorium on deep borehole exploration.

Now residents are objecting to language in Senate Bill 2037 that says county zoning regulations may not prohibit a high-level radioactive waste facility permitted by the three-member North Dakota Industrial Commission.

“North Dakota Community Alliance strongly refutes this section of the code and believes counties should have the right to determine their own county economy, health and well-being by regulating land usage with zoning,” Leier told members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The group also raised concerns about the bill giving “sweeping powers” to people who are not elected officials, including the state geologist. Chuck Volk, a member of the alliance, said the residents have faith in current leaders, but he expressed concern that "leaders change.”

They propose to add more legislative oversight by adding Senate and House members from both parties to a high-level radioactive waste advisory council that is established by the bill.

Since 2016, the alliance has researched issues related to nuclear waste disposal and exploration, including viewing quarterly meetings of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Leier said members are concerned about an effort on the federal level to reclassify high-level radioactive waste and “rapid movement” by private corporations to enter the nuclear waste industry.

“We know about it because we’re making it our business to keep watching,” Leier said.

Sen. Jim Roers, R-Fargo, a member of the committee, presented several amendments to the bill that were developed in consultation with the citizen group. The amendments increase permitting fees and bonding requirements, increase notification of community members and extend a comment period.

Roers has previously said the bill seeks to define a process for the state to respond if the federal government ever designates North Dakota as a repository for high-level radioactive waste.

The alliance members say they want the bill to move forward but would like it amended further.

“We don’t want to kill the bill. We want to find a compromise,” Leier said.

Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said members plan to continue discussing the bill next week. The committee meets Thursday and Friday in the Fort Lincoln Room of the Capitol.