Opponents of the newly revived federal plan to store nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain are preparing for battle with the Trump administration as the political winds seem to be shifting in favor of the project.
Powerful figures in Nevada — led by Republican Sen. Dean Heller and including freshman Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, and Gov. Brian Sandoval — have vowed to fight the White House at every turn as it tries to breathe new life into Yucca Mountain with the first injection of federal funds into what surely would be a multi-billion dollar undertaking.
But none of those political figures, analysts say, carry the same weight as former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who successfully lobbied the Obama administration to kill the project six years ago and made opposition to the plan a cornerstone of his political career.
“The coming Yucca fight provides Heller with an opportunity to demonstrate his value to Nevada and by extension, improve his 2018 [re-election] prospects,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “However, he is not well positioned within the Senate, and the fact that he was not even told that funding for the project was in Trump’s proposed budget before it was released does not bode well and suggests that he is on the outside.”
On Monday, Mr. Heller’s office did not respond to questions about whether the senator had been given any indication that Mr. Trump’s budget proposal contained funding requests for Yucca Mountain.
In that document — a blueprint that has little chance of being adopted as currently written — the administration singles out the project for $120 million to allow the federal government to finally secure a dumping ground for nuclear waste.
The proposed site, roughly 90 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, initially was approved by Congress in 2002 as a landing spot for at least some of the roughly 77,000 tons of used nuclear fuel currently stored at facilities across the country. Legislation passed in 1982 requires the federal government to find a permanent, safe location to store that fuel.
The Obama administration, amid reports the project would end up costing nearly $100 billion, formally scrapped Yucca Mountain in 2011. It’s widely believed that behind-the-scenes political pressure from Mr. Reid helped drive that decision.
Mr. Reid’s fellow Nevada lawmakers now are trying to pick up the anti-Yucca torch, and their reaction to the president’s budget last week was swift and harsh.
“We will not be the nation’s nuclear waste dump,” Mr. Heller said. “This project was ill-conceived from the beginning and has already flushed billions of taxpayer dollars down the drain. Members of both parties keep trying to revive this dead project via the budget and appropriations process, but I will continue to fight those efforts.”
Ms. Cortez Masto, who replaced Mr. Reid in the Senate, called the Yucca Mountain site a “hole in the ground” that will “never be a viable solution for dealing with nuclear waste.”
Mr. Sandoval, the state’s Republican governor, called it an “ill-conceived project” and said the administration should work with the private sector to find a disposal ground for the fuel.
While the president’s budget calls for $120 million to restart the complex legal licensing aspect of Yucca Mountain approval, the true costs of that process are much higher, critics say.
Ms. Cortez Masto, citing the federal Energy Department’s own past estimates, said that licensing hearings could cost the federal government as much as $1.6 billion, largely because the state of Nevada is sure to fight the proposal at every turn.
Robert Halstead, executive director of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, a staunch opponent of the proposal, suggested that even though the White House has come out in favor of the project, there’s little appetite to talk about what it will truly cost to open Yucca Mountain.
“I believe the Yucca proponents are unwilling or perhaps unable to address these cost estimates,” Mr. Halstead said. “It is my opinion that they avoid talking about the total licensing cost because it would discourage restarting the program and the licensing proceeding.”
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