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Harry Reid’s Influence Wanes On Yucca Mountain

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Nevada Sen. Harry Reid announced his retirement Friday after serving nearly three decades. But was Reid’s retirement precipitated by fears he was losing one of Nevada’s longest political battles: preventing the nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain?

The use of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository has been hotly debated for the last 25 years or so, with Sen. Reid promising Nevada residents he would never allow waste to be stored at the site.

For years, Reid has been able to successfully keep the federal government from storing nuclear waste at Yucca. Nuclear waste storage at Yucca was first approved by Congress in 2002, but Reid was able to cut off funding to the project while he was Senate majority leader. The Obama administration helped Reid out by halting Yucca’s licensing process.

Republican control of the Senate and House has increased the prospects that Yucca Mountain may be opened to waste storage in the near future. Such a development would hurt Reid’s credibility among Nevada voters that overwhelmingly oppose storing nuclear waste at Yucca.

That prospect has been amplified in recent months as Senate Democrats cozy up to Republicans on nuclear waste issues.

In a recent hearing on the Energy Department’s 2016 budget, Sen. Patty Murray pressed Secretary Ernest Moniz on moving forward with Yucca’s licensing. “I really urge you, Mr. Secretary, to follow the congressional intent as directed in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and defend DOE’s Yucca Mountain license application,” she said.

Murray has been pressuring the DOE to finish its licensing of Yucca for months. In December, Murray sent Moniz a letter on the issue, which was taken as a sign industry officials say “shows the waning power of the project’s fiercest foe, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid,” reported E&E News.

But it’s not just Murray who could break ranks with Reid, as other Democrats joined Republicans in passing a bipartisan nuclear waste bill that did not rule out using Yucca Mountain.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Maria Cantwell of Washington joined Republicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in introducing a bill that would create temporary and permanent nuclear waste sites. But these sites would not take Yucca’s place.

“I should note that federal law designates one repository for our country’s used nuclear fuel, Yucca Mountain,” Alexander said in a hearing Wednesday. “After years of delay, I want to be clear: Yucca Mountain can and should be part of the solution to our nuclear waste stalemate.”

Murray also sponsored the bill. Both Murray and Cantwell have been working hard in the past few months to get the Obama administration to move forward on Yucca Mountain. Washington state also stores military nuclear waste, and its Senators have been looking hard for an alternative.

There’s another sign that Reid’s influence on the issue may be waning. Reid and other Nevada lawmakers introduced a bill in early March that would give the state of Nevada the power to veto storing waste at Yucca.

“For decades the federal government wasted billions of dollars attempting to recklessly move America’s deadly high-level nuclear waste to a dump at Yucca Mountain, despite the overwhelming objections of Nevadans,” Reid said in a statement on the bill.

But with Senate and House Republicans determined to be done with Yucca once and for all, Reid may see more Democrats break ranks and push for Yucca to be opened up to nuclear waste.

Reid has another problem. Nuclear waste regulators have reiterated that Yucca was a safe place to store nuclear waste.

Nuclear regulators stated last October that Yucca Mountain would meet federal safety requirements. Regulators said Yucca could safely store nuclear waste for one million years once it’s closed. The report came after a federal court ordered the Energy Department to continue its evaluation of Yucca as a nuclear waste site.

In Jan. 2015, nuclear regulators reiterated that Yucca was a safe nuclear waste repository, adding that the government needed to transfer land and water rights to the Energy Department before construction could begin.

Reid’s office did not respond to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

“To continue to oppose Yucca Mountain because of radiation concerns is to ignore science – as well as the law,” Sen. Alexander said in Wednesday’s hearing.

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