The thing about Yucca Mountain is the momentum.
During the Reagan administration, the proposed nuclear waste repository got its biggest boost, as Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. In 1987, the act was amended to focus exclusively on Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Since then, more than $12 billion has been spent studying the idea of burying thousands of tons of high-level waste deep inside Yucca Mountain. That’s a lot of momentum.
But that momentum slowed over the years, as Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama blocked the project. But more than the presidents, former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid stood on the brakes and quashed Yucca’s momentum and its funding.
Today, the proposed repository sits empty, behind a fence, unused and unready for its intended mission. Starved of attention and money, it would need billions before the first pound of waste could be placed inside.
But now, momentum may be building again.
At a meeting of Hispanics in Politics on Wednesday, former Gov. Robert List — a lawyer who formerly represented pro-Yucca interests — offered up reasons why.
First, Reid is gone from the Senate. With him went the outsized clout that comes with a majority or minority leader. Nevada lost not only Reid’s seniority and his contacts, but also his knowledge of the legislative process.
Second, Obama is gone from the White House, replaced by a president much more sympathetic to Yucca Mountain than his predecessor. But even more than that, Trump lost Nevada in 2016, and owes the state no political favors.
Third, there’s no prominent Nevadan close enough to the president to try to persuade him to abandon Yucca. Gov. Brian Sandoval’s candidate was John Kasich, and he’s since differed with the president publicly on health care and the border wall. Sen. Dean Heller wasn’t a Trump guy, either, and has disagreed with the president, too.
In fact, the only pro-Trump member of the Nevada delegation is Rep. Mark Amodei, but he’s open to discussing Yucca Mountain. The rest of the delegation — Democrats all — are in the minority and relatively powerless. “Our clout in Washington has diminished substantially,” List said.
Fourth, the national math hasn’t changed: Nevada’s six-member congressional delegation is vastly outnumbered by the delegations of the 33 nuclear states, which include New York, Illinois, Ohio and Florida.
And now, President Trump has called for spending $120 million to re-start Yucca. While that money was not in a stopgap spending measure passed by the House this week — which drew cheers from Nevada’s congressional Democrats — that’s a temporary victory, at best. The true test will be the budget approved for the fiscal year that starts in October.
“It is, in my judgment, moving forward,” List said.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no opposition still trying to slow Yucca’s momentum. Former Citizen Alert Executive Director Peggy Maze Johnson — who’s lived in Washington state for the past five years — came to Hispanics in Politics Wednesday to remind the audience that nuclear waste is among the most deadly substances known to man. She said the best way to deal with the waste is to glassify it and bury it in earthen berms not visible from overhead. To transport the waste, or to reprocess it as is done in France and other places, is to risk dirty bombs.
“It’s like a terrorist playground,” she said.
Johnson echoed Nevada’s main objections to Yucca, including seismic faults, the fallibility of “drip shields” that act to keep water away from waste storage casks and the vulnerability of the underground aquifer in the event waste is ever exposed.
And the money needed to complete Yucca Mountain is staggering, too. “It’s outrageous to put money back into a project that was dead,” she said.
But Yucca was never really dead, just in hibernation, lurking in the cold, black text of federal law, unchanged all these years because Reid and others knew they never had to votes to change it.
And now, Yucca is back. And it has a little bit of momentum.
Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5276. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.