Reid presses Yucca Mountain cuts, says project ‘not a jobs program’

WASHINGTON — Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday he has no hesitation about arranging a new round of deep budget cuts in the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project, even as they might displace more Nevadans during a recession.

“Yucca Mountain is not a jobs program,” Reid said. “Yucca Mountain is a safety issue for the people of this country. We are not going to be deterred from where we think the Yucca Mountain waste should go. It should stay where it is,” at power plants in other states.

“Yucca Mountain is a symbol of everything bad about government waste,” Reid said in answer to questions at the end of a meeting among the five members of the state’s congressional delegation, the first since Congress reconvened last week.

Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said they would renew efforts to obtain job displacement assistance for employees of the Department of Energy and its contractors who might be threatened in the coming months as Congress takes up bills expected to reduce spending on the Yucca project, which has offices in Las Vegas.

“There is going to have to be some mitigation for the employees,” Ensign said. “You cannot just cut the thing off and lay people off. We will work on that.”

On another Yucca Mountain topic, Ensign said fellow Republican leaders in Nevada who have been calling for the state to rethink its official opposition to the project were making “a big mistake.”

“At this time when we have the best chance of killing Yucca Mountain once and for all, we should not be divided as a state,” Ensign said. “The vast majority of people in the state are against Yucca Mountain. We are working in tireless fashion to kill this thing and we should not be showing any cracks in the armor.”

About 60 members of the Nevada Republican Central Committee toured Yucca Mountain on Dec. 12. Afterwards several suggested the state should consider negotiating for government benefits in exchange for toning down its opposition.

“There is no money to negotiate for even if we wanted to,” Ensign said.

Reid in recent years has engineered a series of budget cuts aimed at weakening and delaying the Department of Energy’s bid to license nuclear waste storage at the Yucca Mountain site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

This year, with President-elect Barack Obama having declared he also opposes the Yucca program, Reid has predicted deep cuts for the remainder of this year, and spending levels at or near zero in 2010.

“Yucca Mountain is gone,” Reid said. He said the 2009 reduction would be “$100 million or so” from DOE’s $386 million repository budget.

He also said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency that is reviewing a construction license application for the proposed repository, also will be cut back. He said he did not know the number offhand “but it will be significantly less than they wanted.”

While most Nevada leaders have declared the Yucca project bad for the state, caught in the crossfire are residents who work for the Department of Energy, its repository management contractor and subcontractors. Total employment through the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management currently is about 1,750, a drop from about 2,400 a year ago, according to DOE documents.

“All of the layoffs can be attributed to budget reductions,” DOE spokesman Allen Benson said Wednesday night.

Most of the jobs are in Nevada, officials say. Some are in Washington and in New Mexico, where Sandia National Laboratories is a major participant.

Last February at the urging of Nevada lawmakers, the Department of Labor arranged a presentation to repository workers through the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, according to Labor official Brent Orrell. It delivered information about unemployment benefits, local job conditions, and retraining opportunities.

The state of Nevada also was reminded it could apply for emergency grants if necessary but it could not be determined Wednesday how the state responded.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760.

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