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September 20, 2019

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With GOP takeover of House, is revival of Yucca debate in offing?

Yucca Mountain

File photo

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

Yucca Mountain

The U.S. Energy Department plans to store spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, an extinct volcano about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »
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Newly elected congressman, Joe Heck, is photographed at his offices in Las Vegas Wednesday, November 3, 2010.

Nevada’s congressional Republicans and Democrats have had their fair share of differences, but over the past three decades they have all come down on the same side of one issue: opposing use of Yucca Mountain as any kind of destination for spent nuclear fuel.

But that may be about to change as Nevada’s newest congressman-elect, Joe Heck, goes to Washington.

During his campaign to unseat Democrat Rep. Dina Titus, Heck spoke of re-envisioning Yucca as a place for scientific research and development on nuclear reprocessing, and encouraged completion of the federal assessment and licensing process that could site the area for nuclear waste.

It wasn’t a unique position to have during an election season that also saw GOP Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Sue Lowden calling for Yucca Mountain to be turned into a reprocessing center for the country’s spent nuclear fuel — a proposal Democrats shunned for being too dependent on natural resources Nevada doesn’t have, in particular water.

But Heck is set to become the first member of Nevada’s congressional delegation since 1982 — when the site was first proposed — to appear to be open to discussion.

It’s a twist with potentially significant consequences. As the House turns Republican, policy experts are expecting nuclear energy, and by extension, Yucca Mountain, to again become a hot topic of debate.

“Next year’s going to look very different. All of the new Republican senators and many of the new Republican members of the House are climate-science deniers,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate science at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. “But they all support nuclear power.”

“Republicans have a fetish for nuclear power,” said Kenneth Green, an expert on energy and environment at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Heck has several weeks until he will be sworn in as Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District representative, which means it will probably be several months at least until he casts his first vote on any bill having to do with nuclear energy development or re-energizing the Yucca project, and thus would have to firmly define his stance on the issue.

But as soon as next week, Heck is going to help fire the opening salvo in the energy debate, as the GOP Steering Committee picks its chairmen for the coming Congress. Heck will cast one of 38 votes and one of only three among newly elected members, in a contentious three-way race to pick a new chairman for energy issues.

The vote poses a two-part decision:

Last week, Washington Republican Doc Hastings, the heir apparent to the Natural Resources committee, circulated a letter urging his GOP colleagues to support him in making a significant jurisdictional switch, by bringing the full docket of energy issues from where they are currently debated, in the Energy and Commerce Committee, and pairing them with Natural Resources instead, under his watch. Hastings argued this would encourage a more “all of the above” approach to energy exploration.

Meanwhile, two candidates are facing off for the gavel of Energy and Commerce. One is Texas Rep. Joe Barton, a big-oil baron who made headlines over the summer when he apologized to British Petroleum executives for the government being too hard on them over the Gulf oil spill. The other is Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, who if selected, would become the first chairman of the energy committee from a non-fuel-producing state.

They are very different candidates. All, however, support a return to nuclear and a resumption of Yucca Mountain as a place to deposit the country’s spent fuel.

There has already been activity by the candidates to reopen the Yucca Mountain debate. Upton filed a complaint in October with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission demanding a reckoning of why its Yucca Mountain licensing application was recently pulled unilaterally, and Hastings is behind a push to get the commission to release its findings about Yucca.

“Whether or not Energy and Commerce stays the same, or it goes to Energy and Natural Resources, I don’t really think that changes the course on whatever activity happens on Yucca Mountain in the House in the next Congress,” said Stewart Bybee, spokesman for Nevada Rep. Dean Heller, whose district houses the proposed site and who opposes allowing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.

Heck spokeswoman Mari Nakashima said the congressman-elect would make a “fair and informed decision after interviewing each candidate individually.”

But Heck may not avail himself of this opportunity to open a debate with his leadership over an issue that most think isn’t a top priority for him.

“With the election of Harry Reid, Yucca Mountain is still the longest of long shots, so I don’t think Joe Heck is going to be taking a position in favor of Yucca Mountain,” said GOP strategist Chuck Muth, who supported Lowden in the 2010 Senate primary. “But at least we can talk about the issue with Joe Heck, and reasonable parties can agree to disagree.”

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

Nakashima said it would be wrong to characterize Heck as “pro-Yucca” just because he wants federal investments made there put to productive use. She added that Heck is focused “on building a portfolio of energy resources in order to diversify our economy and capitalize on the tremendous opportunity Nevada has in becoming a leading renewable and green energy leader in the Southwest.”

But for many Nevadans, including many Heck supporters, the idea of doing anything with nuclear waste at Yucca is still anathema, more because of concerns about the deficiencies of safe transportation options through and around Las Vegas than issues with the science of reprocessing the waste.

“We’re a tourist destination, and one minor spill could potentially make this a ghost town,” said Sig Rogich, a GOP strategist and former chairman of the Nevada GOP who in 2010 led a coalition of high-profile Republicans backing Reid’s re-election campaign. “It’s a bad choice, and if you look at those who are advocating it most, it’s a self-serving group of people. But (Heck is) a very intelligent man, and I have confidence that he understands the sensitivity of this issue.”

Others see Heck’s stance thus far as a sign of a new trend.

“Ten years ago, the contest between (John) Ensign, Reid, (Jim) Gibbons and (Shelley) Berkley, and (Jon) Porter, was to just see who could out-oppose Yucca the most, but that’s changed a lot,” said Robert Uithoven, who worked for former Rep. and outgoing Gov. Gibbons and ran Lowden’s campaign. “Candidates have a little more freedom to speak about Yucca Mountain openly; it’s reflective of changing patterns in the state.”

The issue may ultimately be out of the House’s hands. Yucca has been stymied in recent years by appropriations sleights of hand that emerge from the Senate, where Reid, as majority leader, has played an important blocking role. In the House, in fact, several measures that would have otherwise funded Yucca Mountain have passed with significant bipartisan support, as Democrats from states with fuel to shed, such as South Carolina, have pushed for the remote Nevada site as a best option.

The House GOP’s anti-spending platform may also be a drag on Yucca and the broader nuclear debate. Nuclear energy is incredibly expensive, and proposed project expansions would require more money in government subsidies than ongoing renewable energy projects do now.

“There’s no guarantee that you could get nuclear growth in the absence of price supports,” Green said. “And fiscally, in a time when you’re out of money, it’s hard to justify outright subsidies.”

And then, of course, there’s the White House.

Reid’s dogged stance against opening Yucca Mountain for waste has been adopted, for the most part, by President Barack Obama. Although the president submitted budget proposals for fiscal 2011 to triple funding for nuclear investment, no funding would have gone toward a Yucca Mountain licensing review.

“There’s no doubt that the House Republicans will try to reopen the Yucca Mountain debate,” Weiss said. “However as long as Sen. Reid is majority leader and Obama is president, that will never become law.”

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