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October 9, 2015

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Spokesman changes his tune on Yucca Mountain — because he must

Greg Lemon spinning the opposite direction with Joe Heck’s team after stint with congressman who advocated for the nuclear waste site

Every time politicians here talk about storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, the usual suspects turn to their well-rehearsed talking points. Republican lawmakers, especially those from nuclear-rich Illinois and South Carolina, harp on the need for a single repository for spent fuel rods and Nevada’s delegation talks about Yucca’s shortcomings as a radioactive burial ground.

Politicians’ positions are carefully crafted and articulated, over and over again, by their press secretaries.

But sometimes those spokesmen have to quickly change their tunes.

Take Greg Lemon. Until a few months ago, he was the press secretary for Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, writing public statements for one of Congress’ most outspoken Yucca waste dump advocates.

Now he’s the chief spokesman for Nevada Rep. Joe Heck, who’s completely opposed to the idea of carting nuclear waste into Nevada.

“It definitely wasn’t brought up in the interview process,” Lemon said with a chuckle. “At some point shortly after accepting the job it kind of dawned on me. ... Now I’m on the other side.”

And what a different view it is.

Click to enlarge photo

Joe Heck is photographed at his offices in Las Vegas Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010.

When Yucca last came up, Kirk was the lawmaker publicly warning Nevada that its non-nuclear days were numbered, predicting a change in the Senate majority and the resumption of Yucca construction it would bring.

Heck, on the other hand, was trying to persuade his House colleagues to turn Yucca into a research park instead of a dumping ground.

That happened last year, so Lemon hasn’t really had a chance to test out his newly adopted Yucca loyalties — except when he occasionally gets ribbed by his colleagues for his history.

But now that Yucca’s heating up again — at least in the House — Lemon is preparing to dive into Yucca by “not approaching it any differently than any other issue.”

Lemon is from Delaware, a state that has never been on a short list to host a nuclear waste dump and has never had a nuclear power plant. That background lets him avoid having any overriding personal interest in Yucca Mountain, though he says he respects the “very strong feelings” that he’s observed on all sides of the issue — in Nevada especially.

“If Yucca was in any other state, folks from that state would have very similar feelings to folks from Nevada about the project,” he said.

Even if some lawmakers believe Nevada has to take the hit so the rest of the country can have nuclear power — and even if he worked for one of them — Lemon said he plans to stick up for the anti-Yucca set as long as he’s with Heck.

“In Illinois, they’re supportive of the Yucca project because of their situation [being dependent on nuclear energy] ... so if Kirk’s going to be an effective representative, he’s going to support it. But if Joe Heck’s going to be an effective representative of his constituency, it makes sense he opposes it,” Lemon said.

“I think that what Nevadans feel about Yucca is a perfectly reasonable position,” he added.

Doesn’t sound quite passionate enough? Well, give him time — he’s barely been in Nevada’s orbit for two months and admits that when it comes to Yucca, he’s still treading carefully while he absorbs just how passionately people approach this issue.

“In any new job, there’s always a new regional, state or local matter you take on,” he said. “But I’m not going to all of a sudden forget that I’m in Heck’s office and not in Kirk’s office. It’s nothing like that.”

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