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From 1987 to 2018, not much changed in Yucca Mountain politics

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

Thirty-five years ago, an influential Democratic senator declared that nuclear waste would never be stored in his state.

A law passed the previous year made that a possibility, but he said never in his backyard would the first high-level repository be built. Four years later, having ascended to a powerful new post, he made his move to protect his home.

Thanks to him, his state was knocked off the list and only one remained: Thus the Screw Nevada Bill was born, the legislative progeny of one J. Bennett Johnston, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee who easily passed the measure over the meek objections of a state with a rookie Senate delegation, two backbenchers named Harry Reid and Chic Hecht.

President Ronald Reagan soon signed the bill into law, catalyzing three decades of repetitive rhetoric (I’m always surprised that ex-Gov./Sen. Richard Bryan didn’t invoke his historical namesake and say, “You shall not crucify Nevada on a dump of waste.”), court-clogging (a dump delayed is a dump denied) and death certificates written (there have been more false endings to this Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue than Freddy Krueger ever endured.).

All of this history became relevant last week as GOP Sen. Dean Heller declared Yucca Mountain dead, the Democrats mocked him for his preening and National Journal raised questions as to whether Nevada’s senior senator really had a wooden stake to entomb this seemingly immortal vampire. For anyone who has covered this story for 30-plus years, this is at once boring and annoying.

The truth is that nuclear waste dump politics have been characterized by more meaningless hyperbole from Nevada officials and more presidential pandering (or dodging) than any single issue. The hypocrisy quotient also has been something that would have confounded John Nash, with posturing Nevada pols quietly taking money from Yucca advocates and pretending that they did not countenance nuclear explosions (including above ground!) for many years in the same spot.

Democrats have tried to use Yucca to their advantage even though the Screw Nevada Bill was the brainchild of one of their own, and the project might not even exist if Johnston hadn’t ensured Nevada was singled out. Sure, a Republican signed it. But Reagan never would have had a bill on his desk if not for one of the more powerful senators of the 20th Century.

This has been a bipartisan effort to screw Nevada for 30 years, but what is inarguable is that the state already would have nuclear waste 100 miles from Las Vegas if not for…. one of the more powerful senators of the 20th Century.

Nevada has a tiny delegation with no clout in DC. The only path to achieve any influence is to be in leadership, where the agenda is set.

If Harry Reid had not climbed the rungs to reach the pinnacle, the repository would not be a multi-billion-dollar hole in the ground but instead would be filled with what countless Nevada pols have breathlessly called “the most toxic substance known to man.” Sure, the lawsuits have helped, the scientific questions are real and ex-Gov. Bob Miller’s closeness to President Bill Clinton made a difference.

But Reid strangled the Yucca budget, controlled the agenda as majority leader and persuaded President Obama to scuttle the project. Whether Obama did it because he believed Yucca was the wrong policy or because he needed Reid to help him in the Senate is immaterial. The result was the same.

In other words, Reid did for Nevada exactly what Johnston did for Louisiana: Protected his backyard.

So here we are.

And contrary to what Reid constantly thundered, Yucca is not dead, as the overwhelming House passage of a bill last week reinforces. (In case you were wondering, the vote was 340-72 – i.e., bipartisan., although all but five “nos” were Democrats.)

Après Reid, le dump?

It’s quite possible.

“It’s an exercise in futility,” Heller said after the House vote. “Let them do what they want, but it’s dead in the Senate. They can beat that dead horse all they want. Let (bill sponsor and Illinois Rep. John) Shimkus do what he does best and that’s beat dead horses.”

No matter what you think of Harry Reid, I know Harry Reid. Harry Reid has been a subject of mine for 30 years. Dean Heller is no Harry Reid.

Even Heller’s GOP House colleague, Mark Amodei, pointed out the game being played by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wants to keep his title and Heller’s seat may matter in achieving that goal. “If you had a chance to make the guy in a tight race the hero, I think you’d do it,” Amodei told The Indy’s Humberto Sanchez last week.

Does anyone think that McConnell, even if he stymies the bill this year, will not bring it up in 2019 should the Republicans still control the Senate? President Donald Trump already has signaled he backs the project, as has every GOP president in the last three decades, so this would be a temporary reprieve at best.

Heller has no evident stroke with his colleagues – he has an “R” after his name, which is all McConnell and Trump care about. And even though Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (“Harry Reid is on Line 1, senator, to talk about the Yucca bill.”) dutifully issued funereal rhetoric after the House passage, there is no reason to believe this is not Nevada being used for a one-cycle-stand, even if the Democrats take control.

(There might be a better argument in the House, which could easily go Democratic, although veteran Rep. Dina Titus, a fervent dump foe, is not especially close to the leadership.)

Yucca should not be an issue in the Nevada Senate race, of course. If Rep. Jacky Rosen were to win, she would be a backbencher with no clout, joining another freshman, Catherine Cortez Masto.

The Democrats can try to use the issue all they want, but Nevada would then have two rookie senators trying to stop a project with massive bipartisan support and a Republican president only too eager to sign the measure.

We know what happened last time that matrix occurred.

Jon Ralston is the editor of The Nevada Independent. He has been covering Nevada politics for more than 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. On Twitter: @ralstonreports


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