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May 22, 2015

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Amodei’s efforts to strike Republican compromise on Yucca faces first real test

Last spring, Nevada didn’t have anyone in Congress who was open to bringing nuclear waste to the state. Now, it has Republican Amodei.

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File photo

Yucca Mountain is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

When the House Appropriations committee votes on an annual Energy and Water package today, Nevadans might want to brace for some powerful deja vu: Just like last year, House Republican leaders want to spend $35 million to revive the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project over Nevada lawmakers’ objections, all but setting up a repeat of last year’s fights.

Except for one thing: This year, Nevada’s delegation looks different.

Last spring, Nevada didn’t have anyone in Congress who was open to the idea of bringing nuclear waste to the state. Now, it has Republican Rep. Mark Amodei — and he says he’s ready to take on the pro-Yucca enthusiasts and try to work out a compromise.

It’s the first specific test of how far he’s willing to push his party on Yucca, and when they push back, whether he’ll fall into party line or object with his vote, as several Nevada representatives have before him.

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Mark Amodei

“I have said I think we need to talk about it. This gives us an opportunity to talk about it,” Amodei said Tuesday. “Once people get over the, ‘Oh my God, you said [Yucca]’s not dead,’ part, I think the focus goes to, 'OK, if it’s not dead, what is alive?'

“If it’s a nuclear landfill, then obviously nothing has changed and the game’s on,” Amodei said. “I don’t know of anybody who thinks we ought to have a nuclear landfill.”

Not anyone in the Nevada delegation, perhaps. But outside it, there are plenty.

“Yucca Mountain is the law of the land, and any efforts to move past Yucca Mountain require congressional action,” Energy and Water appropriations subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said last week. If the full committee approves the legislation on Wednesday, it moves to the full House for a vote.

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Sen. Harry Reid speaks to community members attending the 2012 Democratic Caucus Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, at Cheyenne High School.

He’s referring to the 1982 law that introduced Yucca as a potential waste deposit site; it was later amended in 1987 to designate Yucca as the country’s sole nuclear waste dump.

Since then, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has suspended its licensing review of the site, effectively ending the procedural siting process. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has also ensured Yucca funding has been expunged from every annual appropriations bill since Obama took office.

“The Yucca Mountain project failed and is now a relic of the past,” Reid said Tuesday.

But until there’s a new bill written to un-designate Yucca Mountain as the country’s nuclear dump, it’s technically ripe for refunding.

Most in the Nevada delegation aren’t convinced the law deserves as much weight as it has.

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Rep. Dean Heller

“This decision in 1987 initiated a one-sided debate, and the study of alternatives effectively ceased,” Nevada Sen. Dean Heller wrote in a letter he sent to House and Senate appropriations committee leaders Tuesday. “I am writing to request that you honor the wishes of the state of Nevada. ... Nevadans have a right to be safe in their own backyards.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., also objected.

“Once again, out-of-state Washington Republicans are attempting to force the nation’s nuclear waste a mere 90 miles from the greatest tourist destination on Earth,” she said, adding that Nevadans “have overwhelmingly rejected [the plan] time and again.”

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Shelley Berkley

In the House, there’s probably no Yucca agitator more vocal than Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, who led a delegation of lawmakers to Yucca Mountain last year and has told colleagues he’s tired of Reid’s pushback.

But Amodei believes he can talk to Shimkus and that the time is ripe to start a conversation.

Despite his readiness to pursue a third way, Amodei may nonetheless find himself running up procedural quirks of the legislative process that have stymied lawmakers before him, including Nevada Rep. Joe Heck’s best-intentioned efforts to strike a compromise solution last year.

When presented last year’s almost identical appropriations legislation on Yucca, Heck, who is opposed to bringing nuclear waste to the state, attempted to repurpose $25 million to go toward a nuclear reprocessing research facility at the site instead. Amodei believes that for Yucca Mountain to be feasible as a reprocessing research facility, Nevada would have to accept the waste.

Last year, Heck was told in no uncertain terms that it was beyond any lawmaker’s purview to try to undo an authorization bill — in this case, the 1982 bill — in an appropriations bill. The hurdle kept Heck from trying to address the other $10 million for Yucca-related projects in Nye County. He eventually voted against the bill.

There’s no word from Heck’s office yet as to whether he plans to attempt any similar end-run around the Energy and Water bill’s provisions on Yucca Mountain this year. The House Appropriations Committee is expected to adopt the relevant language intact Wednesday.

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