- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The retirement of Sen. Harry Reid may give new life to a project he’s made a career out of opposing.

For years, the Senate minority leader and Nevada Democrat has been the most vocal opponent of a plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a remote site less than 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Analysts say Mr. Reid’s staunch political opposition to the proposal partly led to the Obama administration to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain in 2011.

But the incoming Trump administration reportedly wants to give the site another look, and they’ll no longer have to deal with the politically powerful Mr. Reid, who has served in the Senate since 1987 and been his party’s leader in the chamber since 2005.

Even diehard opponents of the Yucca Mountain proposal concede that the debate around the facility had become almost entirely about Mr. Reid and his heavy-handed opposition, creating a narrative that he was the sole reason the project never came to fruition.

“The great irony here is that because Sen. Reid has been so successful in using his knowledge of the Senate rules, procedures, and powers to hobble the Department of Energy’s program, there are lots of people who have come to the reasonable conclusion that the problem with Yucca Mountain is Harry Reid,” said Robert Halstead, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.

Mr. Halstead argues that there are other problems with the proposal.

He says it’s too expensive — the cost at the beginning of the Obama administration was estimated at nearly $100 billion — and that it’s simply the wrong place to store the roughly 77,000 tons of used fuel from nuclear power reactors. That fuel is currently stored on site at nuclear power facilities across the country, defying a 1982 federal law that calls on the government to find a permanent, safe location.

Other Nevada political figures are hoping to step in and fill the immense power gap created by Mr. Reid’s departure, though none have the clout of the outgoing minority leader.

“We’re going to do everything we can to stop this,” Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, said over the summer, conceding that he expects a renewed push with Mr. Reid out of the way.

But other lawmakers remain committed to Yucca. Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, backs the proposal and has urged fellow lawmakers to move forward both on temporary solutions and a more permanent fix in the form of Yucca Mountain.

“We need to move on all tracks at the same time to solve the nuclear waste stalemate,” he said at a congressional hearing this fall.

The project, originally approved by Congress in 2002, was scrapped by the Obama administration in 2011. That decision came despite years of research and billions of dollars allocated to the proposal.

Soon after the White House seemingly killed Yucca, the Government Accountability Office slammed the move as purely political, and there’s long been speculation that Mr. Reid’s political maneuvering was the main reason the project was halted.

With Mr. Reid gone, and Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, analysts say the GOP could revive the project, first by appropriating money for the necessary licensing processes.

Harry Reid controlled the purse strings Getting Harry out of the way to get at least a chance for a normal appropriations process [including money for Yucca Mountain] would be very helpful,” said Gary Lanthrum, an engineer who worked for over a decade at the Department of Energy.

From 2003 to 2010, Mr. Lanthrum was in charge of creating a transportation system to ship nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.

Even with Mr. Reid’s departure, he continued, there are still significant roadblocks.

Mr. Lanthrum estimated the construction licensing process alone would take at least three years, possibly longer given the hard-line opposition from stakeholders in Nevada and elsewhere.

“You have to get the license to start construction before you can get the permits. Those are going to be denied [by the state of Nevada], and then you go through another series of lawsuits,” he said. “It’s really difficult.”

There will be other powerful interests pushing hard against the project, including those from President-elect Donald Trump’s past line of the work: the casino business.

The American Gaming Association this month sent a letter to Mr. Trump laying out concerns that a massive nuclear waste dump near the Las Vegas strip could hurt business.

“Yucca Mountain is located just 90 miles from Las Vegas and any problems with the transport of nuclear waste to the site or issues with its storage there would bring potentially devastating consequences to the world’s premier tourist destination and the industry, which all Nevadans rely on in one way or another,” the organization said in its letter.

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