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Nevada Governor Expands Fight Over Trump’s Yucca Mountain Plan

Congressmen tour Yucca Mountain on April 9, 2015, near Mercury, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Nevada’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, is expanding efforts to prevent the Trump administration from reviving the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project in his state.

Sandoval and Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt on Thursday intervened in a nuclear waste lawsuit filed in federal court by the state of Texas last month. Filed by the Texas Attorney General’s Office in the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on March 14, the lawsuit demands that the Energy Department complete licensing activities for the mothballed repository with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Congress in 1987 designated Yucca Mountain as the sole site for permanently storing American spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. But the Obama administration in 2009, with prodding from since-retired Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), cancelled licensing efforts with the NRC. President Obama eventually opted for a strategy that emphasized the need for host state and local consent, with the goal of establishing interim storage sites leading up to the development of one or more national repositories.

Republicans lambasted the Obama administration for refusing to follow the law as written in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The Trump administration in its 2018 budget proposal included $120 million to restart licensing activities with the NRC and support a “robust” interim storage program, which created a firestorm in Nevada.

Sandoval and various Nevada lawmakers have promised “relentless opposition” against Yucca Mountain, which is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subcommittee, has stated that he will introduce legislation before the August recess to restart licensing efforts on the repository. Shimkus and some other members of Energy and Commerce, which has the responsibility of congressional oversight on nuclear waste management, have long supported reviving the project. Activity in the House picked up in the final year of the Obama administration with Reid’s retirement looming, and Republicans celebrated Trump’s victory and its implications for Yucca Mountain.

“Science has confirmed that Yucca Mountain is incapable of safe storage of the world’s most toxic substance. The State of Nevada is prepared to successfully defeat this dangerous and ill-conceived project at every opportunity and in any venue,” Sandoval said in a statement Thursday.

Texas’ petition demands that the federal government cancel efforts on DOE’s consent-based siting process, which was the Obama administration’s replacement strategy for Yucca Mountain. Private companies Waste Control Specialists and Holtec International have applied for NRC licenses to operate interim storage facilities in West Texas and New Mexico, respectively, sites that could fall under the consent-based siting process.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, while serving as Texas governor, played a pivotal role in helping Waste Control Specialists privatize a government-operated, low-level nuclear waste facility. Perry, in his 2012 presidential run, also accepted $1.25 million in campaign donations from late Dallas tycoon and Waste Control Specialists owner Harold Simmons.

The interim facilities would have the capacity to hold the estimated 75,000 tons of nuclear waste that has been stranded at American nuclear reactor sites around the country, resulting from Yucca Mountain’s failure and DOE’s inability to take title to the waste. The federal government has paid more than $30 billion in liabilities to nuclear utilities that have been forced to keep the waste on site, and about $15 billion has been spent on development of Yucca Mountain. Anti-Yucca officials in Nevada claim that the remaining licensing process for the repository will cost DOE $1.7 billion and the NRC $330 million.

“Texas’s petition would drastically diminish Nevada’s ability to present its case against Yucca Mountain by recklessly pushing forward with a fundamentally flawed project at the direct expense of the health and safety of our citizens,” Sandoval said. “I would like to thank Attorney General Laxalt and Director Halstead for moving quickly to intervene and continue our state’s relentless opposition to use the flawed Yucca Mountain project as the nation’s nuclear waste dump.”

Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) in a statement Thursday on the lawsuit called Yucca Mountain “a boondoggle that will jeopardize the health and safety of Southern Nevada and residents in almost every congressional district across the country.”

“Scientists, policy experts, and Nevadans all agree: Any attempt to spend billions more on this disastrous plan is bad science and wasted resources,” she said.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) in his own statement last month said that Trump’s “reckless proposal” will not revive the mothballed project.

“Washington needs to understand what Nevada has been saying for years: we will not be the nation’s nuclear waste dump,” Heller said. “This project was ill-conceived from the beginning and has already flushed billions of taxpayer dollars down the drain. Members of both parties keep trying to revive this dead project via the budget and appropriations process, but I will continue to fight those efforts.”