Key GOP Senators Want to Abandon Heller on Yucca Mountain

Sen. Dean Heller says as long as he’s in the Senate, any bill to restart the nuclear-waste project will be dead—but fellow Republicans say they’re eyeing passage this Congress.

The crest of Yucca Mountain near Mercury, Nev.
AP Photo/John Locher
May 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

Some key Senate Republicans are fed up with the saga over permanent nuclear-waste storage. And they may not shield Sen. Dean Heller, a politically endangered colleague, for much longer.

Those lawmakers are lining up behind legislation to send nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain as the House prepares to sign off on the bill overwhelmingly Thursday. House passage will move the politically thorny nuclear-waste issue closer towards resolution than it has been in decades.

But the vote, which was put on the schedule by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, reportedly a close friend of Heller’s, is something of a slap in the face for the Nevadan. And the declarations of support from Republican colleagues add insult to injury.

Many Senate Republicans say permanent storage is simply too important to sideline.

“I’m glad [the House is] getting on the bill. I honestly think the time has come over here that we will take something up like that and get serious about it,” Sen. David Perdue told National Journal. “I’m sensitive to the political dynamics. I’ve actually talked to Dean about it, but I believe this is one that’s time has come.”

Heller is set to face off against Rep. Jacky Rosen, who also opposes the project, in the upcoming midterm election. Hillary Clinton won Nevada in 2016, and Heller is widely considered one of the most vulnerable senators. An April poll, conducted by the Mellman Group and released by The Nevada Independent, put Heller up 1 point—40 to 39.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell likely aims to bolster Heller’s chances by stalling movement on legislation to bring nuclear waste to Yucca, a proposal largely despised by Nevada’s political class. Heller continues to tout his opposition as the bulwark against the House legislation and regular appropriations for permanent storage.

“Just as I have in the past, I will continue to serve as a roadblock to every effort to make Nevada our nation’s nuclear-waste dump,” Heller told National Journal in a statement. “This vote is nothing but a futile exercise because as long as I am in the U.S. Senate, Yucca Mountain is dead. It is literally that simple.”

But Heller is far from a heavyweight in the upper chamber. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval appointed Heller to the Senate in 2011, and the former House member and Nevada secretary of state won narrowly the following year. He largely steers clear of the limelight.

Until the outset of the 115th Congress, the now-retired top Senate Democrat and senior Nevada senator, Harry Reid, staved off progress on Yucca. Few, if any, political observers think Heller wields similar influence.

“This is moving forward under a Republican Congress and a Republican-controlled White House,” said Stewart Boss, communications director for Rosen’s campaign. “These are Heller’s close friends and allies who are throwing this on the floor, who put it in Trump’s budget.”

And Republicans are already suggesting the lame-duck session following the November election may provide a window for the legislation.

“We’re going to get this done. And there will be opportunities between now and November, or the day after,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden told reporters this week. “Our goal is to get this to the president’s desk by the end of this Congress.”

Spokespeople for McConnell and Majority Whip John Cornyn declined to comment on the legislation or a potential vote in the Senate. But Sen. John Barrasso, another member of leadership, left the door open for action.

“It’s something over the years I’ve supported. We’ll see what happens when it gets here if it passes,” he told National Journal.

Nuclear waste, the byproduct of generating electricity via nuclear energy, is now stored temporarily at power plants in 39 states and 121 communities across the country, according to data released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which passed the Yucca Mountain bill 49-4 nearly a year ago.

South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Georgia—which Perdue represents—are states with some of highest rates of nuclear power and, thus, waste storage. Illinois, however, surpasses all those states, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The lead sponsor of the House bill, Rep. John Shimkus, represents an Illinois district.

Congress originally directed construction of a long-term nuclear-waste-storage facility at Yucca Mountain in 1982, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2009 said radiation levels would be safe for up to a million years.

The Shimkus bill calls on the NRC to make a final decision on Yucca within 30 months of enactment, while also paving the way for private interim facilities. The legislation allows one interim facility to be built and funded prior to a new NRC decision on Yucca or prior to an Energy Department determination that a decision is imminent. Last-minute changes to the bill eliminated some mandatory spending to placate appropriators.

Still, some lawmakers outside Nevada, even some particularly influential ones with skin in the game, are not falling in line.

“I’m going to oppose it,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley, the House Democratic Caucus chairman who represents nuclear-heavy New York. “We’ve got to figure it out. That’s not the only way to [handle nuclear waste].”

And environmental groups are signaling staunch opposition.

“This is a project certain to fail the NRC’s licensing process due to the geology and hydrology of the site that make it unsuitable for isolating spent nuclear fuel for the required time,” the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and dozens of other groups told lawmakers in a letter this week. “The waste will not be going anywhere for years and it should be incumbent on Congress to fix problems in a meaningful fashion, not attempt an expedient solution that is destined to fail.”

Still, the political winds appear to blow in the direction of ultimate—if not immediate—passage. Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Johnny Isakson both said they’d support passing it in this Congress.

“I think we have to have a safe, effective way to deal with nuclear waste, and Yucca Mountain is one of them,” Isakson told National Journal. Asked whether passage is possible this Congress, Isakson said, “Absolutely. I hope it will.”

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