Reid's exit removes obstacle to Yucca nuclear waste site

Reid's exit removes obstacle to Yucca nuclear waste site
© Greg Nash

The retirement of Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDems face identity crisis Heller under siege, even before healthcare Charles Koch thanks Harry Reid for helping his book sales MORE (D-Nev.) is removing one of the biggest obstacles to the construction of a nuclear waste site at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

For more than a decade, Reid has used his leadership position to block the Yucca project, which Congress designated as the nation’s permanent disposal site for high-level nuclear waste in 1987.

Supporters of Yucca say Reid’s retirement could shake up the debate over the project and prompt lawmakers — particularly Democrats — to take a second look.

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“There’s no question that people are looking around and saying, ‘Yeah, this news is good for solving the nuclear stalemate and having Yucca be part of that solution,’ ” a Senate GOP aide said of Reid’s planned departure in 2017.

“There’s no reason to oppose Yucca beyond a political calculation, and the math on that just changed.”

The staffer said that Democrats who were afraid to buck the party leadership are likely to reconsider their Yucca positions now that Reid is on the way out.

Since Yucca was chosen as the nuclear waste site, the project has been delayed by various challenges and funding cuts, many of which can be traced back to Reid.

The Democratic leader has worked to cut funding for the application and planning process; fought to stop spending bill riders for Yucca; and sought to ensure the appointment of Yucca skeptics to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

He helped convince President Obama to drop the Bush administration’s defense of the application for Yucca, and establish a policy that any nuclear waste site needs the consent of the local and state governments.

Reid’s position aligns with most Nevada leaders and three quarters of its residents.

“He was a tenacious opponent of the site and really did lead the charge, and was very single-minded about having that issue as his top priority,” an industry lobbyist said.

The lobbyist said Reid’s departure changes the landscape for Yucca, but since planning is a slow-moving process, the change isn’t likely to have dramatic, immediate effects.

Another factor working in favor of Yucca opponents is Nevada’s prime role in the presidential nominating process, with the state’s caucus set to be one of the first in the nation in 2016.

Former secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPro-Trump group pulls ads targeting GOP senator on ObamaCare repeal Stone to testify before House Intel Committee next month Overnight Cybersecurity: New ransomware attack spreads globally | US pharma giant hit | House intel panel interviews Podesta | US, Kenya deepen cyber partnership MORE, the likely Democratic nominee, already opposes the project, and Republican presidential hopefuls will be under heavy pressure to take the same line.

Still, Reid’s resignation could also change how Nevada approaches the issue, which might be more important.

“It may open the door to a conversation with the state that may eventually get you to a place where there’s some sort of consensual dialogue on the future of Yucca,” the lobbyist said.

The nuclear industry has long sought a waste repository so that plants don’t have to store their spent fuel on-site. Construction of Yucca could provide certainty for the industry, which hasn’t built a new reactor in the Untied States this century.

Opposition to Yucca showed some signs of weakening before Reid’s announcement.

Republican control of the Senate took Reid out of the chamber’s top position, significantly loosening the grip he held on confirmations, funding, debate and even his own caucus.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a top Yucca advocate and chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over it, said Reid lost his ability to block the project when Democrats lost the majority.

“Remember, there hasn't been a vote on Yucca Mountain in the Senate since Sen. Reid was the majority leader,” said Shimkus, who has promised to launch a legislative push this year to revive funding for the planning and application process.

The change was evident when Sen. Patty MurrayPatty MurrayDem senator: I don't know if Trump 'ever understood' ObamaCare Dems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Live coverage: Senate GOP unveils its ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (D-Wash.) told Energy Secretary Ernest MonizErnest MonizObama energy secretary launches nonprofit Overnight Energy: Zinke, Perry take heat over Trump budget Overnight Energy: Trump signs climate order | Greens vow to fight back MORE to move forward on the Yucca application during a March hearing.

She cited NRC’s recent finding that Yucca’s waste would be safe for a million years, a finding that the project’s proponents have held up as a major victory.

Freshman Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.) also broke with his state’s leaders in March with an opinion piece in the Las Vegas Review-Journal arguing that Nevada should start an “honest conversation” over whether Yucca could be built in exchange for some other benefits for the state.

Reid and his allies maintain that Yucca will never happen.

“Yucca Mountain is dead,” Reid said in a radio interview the day he announced his retirement.

He added that “the next president of the United States is going to be Hillary Clinton,” and she opposes the project as well.

Dean HellerDean HellerBehind closed doors, tensions in the GOP Pro-Trump group pulls ads targeting GOP senator on ObamaCare repeal Three more GOP senators announce opposition to healthcare bill MORE (R), Nevada’s junior senator, also predicted Yucca will never move forward.

Opponents of the nuclear waste site say their problems with Yucca remain the same no matter who is in charge of the Senate.

Allison Fisher, outreach coordinator for Public Citizen’s energy campaign, said the national conversation about nuclear waste is moving toward “consent-based” proposals, in which local officials would have to approve a project.

“That’s just not going to happen with Yucca Mountain,” she said.

Yucca also has a number of hurdles, including some 300 challenges to the project before the Obama administration mothballed it.

“Even if it were to somehow manage to get the green light, it would have many, many technical hurdles to overcome. I just don’t see it happening,” Fisher said.

Melinda Pierce, the top lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said Reid still has 22 months to find more ways to block Yucca.

“I never underestimate Reid’s legislative prowess,” she said.