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After 30 years, nothing’s changed in Nevada’s fight against storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain

Nevada’s senior officials were in a bipartisan state of high dudgeon last week, after Energy Secretary Rick Perry suggested the Silver State could be both the temporary and permanent home of high-level nuclear waste.

Gov. Brian Sandoval — who once endorsed Perry for president — called Perry’s comments a “complete blindside” and “a prime example of federal overreach.”

“Let me be clear,” Sandoval vowed. “No part of Nevada will be home to the world’s most toxic waste and we will fight every effort that puts our citizens at risk.”

Even after Perry clarified that there are no plans for temporarily storing waste at the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site, where hundreds of nuclear test detonations took place), Perry still found himself under fire.

“I strongly believe that our nation cannot fully move forward with viable, sustainable solutions for spent nuclear fuel and defense high-level waste without moving past Yucca Mountain,” wrote Sen. Dean Heller in a letter to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Invoking the phrase du jour, Heller urged the committee to instead follow “consent-based” siting.

“It is clear that U.S. taxpayer dollars would be better spent identifying viable alternatives for long-term storage of nuclear waste in areas that are willing to house it,” Heller wrote. He warned the final price of Yucca Mountain could be just shy of $96 billion.

And Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto grilled Perry when he came before the Energy Committee, asking why he’d abandoned talk of state sovereignty in favor of a budget request aimed at re-starting the Yucca Mountain licensing process. “Nothing’s really changed,” Perry replied. He noted the “moral obligation” (as well as the statutory obligation) for the government to take possession, and dispose of, nuclear waste. In the end, Cortez Masto managed to wring the same promise out of Perry that nearly every presidential candidate has uttered over the issue: sound science will decide if Yucca is suitable.

Oh, and also “the rule of law,” Perry added.

And what of the very real possibility that sound science and the rule of law conflict? That’s entirely possible, given the fact that Yucca Mountain was named as the nation’s preferred repository for nuclear waste before the final scientific word was in? That will be a debate for the courts.

But no one should be surprised that Perry — who earned the votes of both Heller and Cortez Masto when he was confirmed as secretary of energy in March — is advocating for the administration’s position on Yucca Mountain.

This is, after all, the man now-President Donald Trump insulted on the campaign trail as unintelligent. (Trump said Perry wasn’t fooling anyone by wearing glasses, and that Perry should be subjected to an IQ test before being allowed to enter the Republican presidential debate.)

Despite those remarks, Perry agreed to join Trump’s administration, heading a department that Perry once (true story) forgot that he’d pledged to eliminate. After accepting the nomination, he (perhaps to his surprise) found that the Energy Department does many useful things.

Did anybody expect, even for a second, that Perry would not take Trump’s direction on Yucca (and everything else)? That he’d embrace the Obama-era notion of a “consent-based” site for nuclear waste storage? Of course not.

Last week’s outrage was simply the continuation of the kabuki theater that has characterized this debate since the 1987 law that selected Yucca Mountain for nuclear waste, a law Nevada has managed to obstruct for 30 years through lawsuits and legislative maneuvering.

But Nevada has always been the underdog in that contest. It’s always been this state against the 30 others that host nuclear power plants and want the federal government to live up to its promise to get rid of their spent fuel. And now that Donald Trump is in the White House, he and his energy secretary are pushing to keep that promise and return some momentum to the Yucca debate.

Because in 30 years of arguing, when it comes to the political dynamics of Yucca Mountain, nothing has changed.

Contact Steve Sebelius at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.

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