The long-stalled plan to stash radioactive waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is set to be revived with the arrival of President-elect Donald Trump in Washington and the departure of the project’s most ardent Senate opponent, Harry Reid.
Two people familiar with Trump’s transition planning say the issue is actively being discussed as a wave of nuclear power plant retirements intensifies pressure to find a permanent home for more than 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste now stored at those facilities. They spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss Trump’s transition plans.
Reid, of Nevada, is retiring from the Senate where he successfully used his influence as the top Democratic official in the chamber to block a decades-long effort to turn a desert ridge 90 miles north of Las Vegas into an underground repository for spent nuclear fuel from power plants.
A roiling war of words between Trump and Reid isn’t helping matters for opponents of the project. Nevada voted for Trump’s Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, and after the election Reid issued an angry statement saying Trump’s election “has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.”
He referred to Trump as someone “who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate.”
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway called the comments “beyond the pale” during an appearance Sunday on Fox News.
The rancor between the two goes back even further. After Trump made a campaign stop in the state last month, Reid derided his pronunciation of “Nevada.”
“Trump told us we pronounce the name of our state wrong minutes before he refused to take a position on Yucca Mountain,” Reid said in a statement issued at the time. “I have news for Donald: It’s pronounced Nev-AD-a, and Yucca Mountain is dead.”
Supporters of the project say Congress made a legally binding pledge in 1982 that the U.S. government was responsible for disposing of the radioactive material that can take thousands of years to degrade. Five years later, Congress chose Yucca as the destination for the nation’s nuclear waste, but the project has been ensnared ever since by political wrangling and government analysis.
President Barack Obama’s administration cut off funding for Yucca in 2010, after declaring the project unworkable.
Trump could easily do an about-face on the government’s approach to Yucca Mountain, by requesting new funding for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s consideration of the site, but analysts and advocates say it could take years to resurrect the teams of government workers focusing on the issue, secure an NRC license for the project and clear other regulatory hurdles.
“Reviving Yucca Mountain in our view would both be very difficult and also bad policy,” said Matthew McKinzie, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The government shouldn’t spend billions more on a project that will likely fail.”
The NRC still would have to license Yucca Mountain, “but licensing is going to be long and arduous,” with regulators pressed to consider a raft of new, significant information about the site, including changes in the size of the casks storing spent fuel and the nature of that waste, McKinzie said.
House Republicans want Yucca to be part of the nation’s nuclear future. Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican representative from Illinois who could become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has described bipartisan interest in getting “this monkey off our back.”
That sentiment may be shared by some Senate Democrats who have been unwilling to challenge Reid on the issue. Opposition will likely soften once Reid leaves and Senate Democrats are playing defense on an array of issues, up against Republicans in the White House and in control of both chambers of Congress, said Bloomberg intelligence analyst Rob Barnett.
It’s “doubtful anybody’s going to fall on a sword to protect Yucca,” said Barnett, adding that Democrats will have to pick their battles. “They can’t filibuster everything, and it seems doubtful Yucca rises to such a threshold.”
The issue has attracted renewed attention as utilities such as Exelon Corp., Dominion Resources Inc. and NextEra Energy Inc. are still without a permanent, off-site home for nuclear material used as fuel in reactors nationwide. Utilities have already paid more than $21 billion for long-term storage.
The issue has surfaced in debates over relicensing aging nuclear power plants and in debates over how to safely close more than a dozen reactors that are now being decommissioned.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, which wants the NRC to complete its review of the Yucca Mountain license application and advocates the development of a consolidated storage facility in a willing host community, has not met with members of Trump’s transition team on the issue, spokesman John Keeley said.