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Trump: I want alternatives to Yucca Mountain

Updated February 6, 2020 - 4:42 pm

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he has listened to Nevadans’ concerns on Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste facility and is committed to find alternatives.

“Nevada, I hear you on Yucca Mountain and my Administration will RESPECT you! Congress and previous Administrations have long failed to find lasting solutions – my Administration is committed to exploring innovative approaches – I’m confident we can get it done!” Trump tweeted.

“The president changed his mind,” said a senior administration official familiar with the matter in an interview with the Review-Journal before the president’s tweet. “Because he heard from Nevada (and) because Congress has refused to fund the current path forward.”

“It’s been going on for, you know, 20 years and we haven’t been able to get a solution” for a stalemate that has gone on for too long, the official added.

The amount for a Yucca alternative, not yet disclosed, would be “substantial.”

Nevada reaction

Former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid — who has been fighting Yucca Mountain longer than almost anyone else — said Trump is merely bowing to reality.

“Yucca Mountain is dead and will remain dead. This has been true for a long, long time. Donald Trump finally realizing this, changing his position and trying to take credit for its demise will not change that fact. I’m glad he has finally seen the light.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak, who has sparred with the Trump administration over nuclear waste issues, welcomed Trump’s tweet.

“I welcome the president’s announced opposition to restarting the Yucca Mountain project, and I look forward to seeing no funding for this project included in his budget next week. I will continue working with the White House and Nevada’s federal delegation on this important issue,” Sisolak said.

“They say if you can’t beat them, join them,” Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., responded in a statement. “President Trump tried to shove nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain down our throats for three years. We beat him badly and he knows it.”

“The president already broke the promise he made to Nevada when he said in Elko that he would respect our state’s opposition to Yucca Mountain. I have no reason to trust him this time around.”

Rep. Mark Amodei, the lone Republican in the delegation and the only member who has been willing to work with Washington to establish a safe nuclear depository and research center, said that after talking to the White House and Department of Energy, “My initial impression was, OK, let’s go to work.”

Amodei thinks it’s positive that Trump is listening to Nevadans. “The fact that there won’t be money in there pursuing licensing is a big deal,” he added.

Rep. Steven Horsford said Nevada’s unified opposition had paid off.

“I’ve said time and time again that Yucca Mountain will never be reauthorized under my watch. The hard work of the Nevada delegation has clearly put pressure on the White House, as evidenced by the president’s newfound commitment to finding alternatives,” Horsford said in a statement. “The people of Nevada have made themselves clear: We do not want our state to be the dumping ground for the nation’s nuclear waste. My constituents will not be ignored and my fight for their safety will continue.”

Shifting Trump positions

It is not clear where the new approach under an interagency task force coordinating with states will lead or how it will affect whether nuclear waste is stored in Nevada, but it will reflect a belief in “doing things where people want them.”

Asked if nuclear waste will be stored in Nevada under this approach, a senior administration official responded, “That’s unanswerable at this time, because when the competition begins, a whole bunch of states may say, ‘OK, this is an interesting situation. Let’s see how we all feel about it.’ Nevadans, I guess, may also have a developing point of view as the conversation matures. But right now everyone knows this is a stalemate. It’s time to fix that.”

Trump never has made a definitive public statement on his personal position on this most controversial of issues in Nevada politics.

Asked about Yucca Mountain in October 2016, the GOP candidate and namesake of Las Vegas’ Trump International Hotel told KSNV Channel 3 he would “take a very strong look at it and the next time you interview me, we’ll talk about it for five minutes.”

By Election Day, Trump had not released his position on Yucca Mountain.

In 2017, however, Trump’s first spending plan included $120 million to restart licensing for a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and other interim storage — which was stalled under President Barack Obama in a move largely seen as a favor to then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But Congress failed to approve funds for re-licensing Yucca Mountain.

In October 2018, as Trump stumped for Republican candidates in Elko, Nevada, Trump signaled that he was reconsidering his decision to include funding to start re-licensing the facility.

“I think you should do things where people want them to happen. So I would be very inclined to be against it and we will be looking at it very seriously over the next few weeks. And I agree with the people of Nevada,” Trump told Reno station KRNV Channel 4.

In November 2018, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., lost his seat and the GOP lost the governor’s seat and most statewide offices in Carson City.

Eye on Nevada in November

Trump and his 2020 re-election campaign have maintained that they believe that Nevada, which Hillary Clinton won by some two points, is winnable in November.

During his “victory” speech in the East Room Thursday, Trump said he thought he could do well in Arizona in 2020, and added, “Nevada is really looking good,” he said.

“This isn’t about about politics,” said an administration official, “this is about good policy and finding a solution.”

The “skinny budget” will allocate “significant” funds for an inter-agency working group to develop a plan in consultation with states and prioritize spending for research and development on storage, transportation and disposal of the nation’s nuclear waste.

“I think this is an opportunity to provide leadership in a space that quite frankly there hasn’t been leadership that has worked for a long time,” a senior administration official explained.

Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto addressed the president directly on Twitter: “I look forward to working with you on this critical issue for Nevada and ensuring your budget doesn’t include any funding to restart the failed Yucca Mountain project that a majority of Nevadans reject, regardless of party.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump for the presidency in November, was skeptical of the president’s apparent change of heart.

“My dad used to say ‘don’t just tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.’ Well, Mr. President, your budget included $116 million to restart the Yucca Mountain process. That means a lot more to Nevadans than more of your empty promises on Twitter.

“The only promise worth making to the people of Nevada is one that ensures absolutely no dumping of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Under a Biden administration there would be absolutely zero dumping of nuclear waste in Nevada.”

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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