Opinion
The wrong way to make the right argument on Yucca Mountain
By
Orrin J. H. Johnson
Yucca Mountain. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Danny Tarkanian put out a press release last week supporting President Trump’s budget blueprint item that would restart the opening of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. It’s a stunning example of how to do the right thing the wrong way.

Nevada politicians (except for Mark Amodei, reaffirming why he’s my favorite Nevada pol) are bipartisanly and reflexively anti-Yucca, no doubt because Nevadans are still largely opposed to using the site. I get it – we spent 50 years ducking and covering, and environmental activism that had more to do with politics than science has worked over the decades to make nuclear anything a comic book level bogeyman (or bogeyman creator, anyway).

But no matter where you’re coming from politically – national security hawk or eco-warrior – nuclear energy is something we should re-think, and embrace. It’s domestic, clean and safe, and you cannot honestly claim to be worried about climate change if you don’t embrace nuclear energy. Otherwise, that eco-virtuous Tesla you drive is still powered primarily by dirty ol’ coal.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Obama, after years and years of study, determined that the site will be safe to store the waste, but the Obama Administration tried to keep the project dead anyway, which I’m sure had nothing to do with his political party’s Senate leader (Harry Reid) needing to keep voters happy in Nevada. No storage facility will exist without some risk, however minor, but the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Right now, nuclear waste is stored in facilities inadequate for long term storage all over the country, wherever it happens to be produced. Nobody sincerely concerned about the environment, leaking radiation or homeland security can look at the current situation and think the status quo ought to be maintained.

And that’s all before looking at developing a reprocessing center, which would recycle spent fuel, as other nations already do. Not only does this have the obvious benefit (as with any recycling) of reducing waste and limiting the need to mine new material, but it would represent yet another science and technology centered industry to diversify our economy and incentivize our local schools and universities to expand technical degree and research programs.

At the very least the licensing process and continued study and planning of the site ought to be allowed to continue, which is all President Trump’s budget proposal does. It’s not as if Trump’s personal limos will be pulling up next week and chucking hot fuel rods into a hole in the ground, Homer Simpson style.

All that said, you might think I’d be excited to see a Senate candidate taking a more open-minded stance about Yucca Mountain than the purely political, knee-jerk opposition most of our local politicians maintain. And you’d be right — if that candidate wasn’t saying those things in the most self-destructive, least persuasive way possible.

Tarkanian’s primary attack on Heller on this issue (and every other) is that, “Dean Heller still refuses to support the Trump administration.”  He doubles down on this restatement of blind loyalty, saying, “Dean Heller should be ashamed of himself for standing against President Trump, a safer America and a more prosperous future for Nevada.”  

I don’t care how much you like any given president — no American should ever, ever desire, much less demand, any of their congressional representatives pledge their primary loyalty to a person, rather than to a set of principles or ideas. I want our entire delegation to support the president if he’s right (like when he proposes a path to citizenship for immigrants brought illegally into the country by their parents when they were children, or when he’s cutting and simplifying taxes), and to oppose him when he’s wrong (like massively increasing federal spending and borrowing). Any leader will be more successful when his friends and allies know it’s time to try to rein in his or her excesses than he will be when surrounded by mindless sycophants. And supporting a policy involving risk to the public cannot come without first convincing the public that the regulators will be sober and careful in the crafting and execution of their plans.

Tarkanian’s list of grievances against Heller starts with “standing against President Trump.” This is personality-cult nonsense, not serious statesmanship. It speaks poorly of the GOP in the Trump era that this may be a winning strategy for any Republican.

I’ve spent enough time around nuclear trained engineers in the Navy – folks who maintained and fearlessly lived next to active reactors contained in mobile steel boxes loaded with explosives – that “nuclear” isn’t a viscerally scary word, and their expertise gives me comfort. But while I happen to agree with the president on this issue, I also recognize I (along with every politician with a Yucca opinion) am not a nuclear scientist or engineer, and may be wrong. I would hope that Tarkanian – or anyone else – would support or oppose Yucca Mountain based on the actual evidence, not on gut reactions formed by too many Japanese monster movies, or even worse, raw political calculation.

To his credit, Tarkanian claims to have always been in favor of Yucca, and that’s great. But while I don’t want candidates who will simply flop with the political winds (I carry no water for Dean Heller, who I have no doubt would be four-square in favor of Yucca Mountain if the polling data looked differently), those seeking to actually win elections must have the ability to persuade voters on what may be an unpopular position. Tarkanian can’t win a general election in a state that generally supports neither the proposed repository nor the President himself by making his candidacy a referendum on either. And of what possible use is a person with demonstrably poor persuasive powers in a deliberative body where consensus must be built with hundreds of other people in order to accomplish anything?

It’s not enough to be right on the issues. If we want to move our Republic past this era of tribal bickering and return to serious governing, we must insist our candidates are not just taking policy positions we might favor, but are giving thoughtful considerations to how they plan to actually achieve – and competently execute – those stated goals.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. He also recently gave a TEDx talk, which you should check out (unless you like Nazis or oppose free speech, in which case you’ll hate it). By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.

INDY FAST FACTS Danny Tarkanian Job: Businessman Party: Republican In current office: None Birthdate: Dec. 18, 1961 Education: University of Nevada, Las Vegas (B.A.) University of San Diego (J.D.) Other public offices held: None Total Donations: $3,443,619 (8/18/04-5/23/18) Top Donors: Danny Tarkanian $528,440 Stations Casino $74,550 Las Vegas Sands Corp $38,900 Domain.com $26,600 Maloof family $18,000
INDY FAST FACTS Mark Amodei Job: Member of the U.S. House of Representatives Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District Party: Republican In current office: 2011-present Birthdate: June 12, 1958 Education: University of Nevada, Reno (B.A.) University of Pacific (J.D.) Other public offices held: Nevada Republican Party chairman (2010-2011) State senator, Capital District (1998-2010) Assemblyman (1996-1999) Total donations: $3,900,765 (7/1/09-6/30/18) Top donors: Barrick Gold $43,000 Las Vegas Sands $42,100 Sierra Nevada Corp $39,000 American Society of Anesthesiologists $39,000 National Association of Home Builders $37,000 Last Report: 5/23/18 Credit: Center for Responsive Politics
INDY FAST FACTS Dean Heller Job: U.S. Senator Party: Republican In current office: 2011-present Birthdate: May 10, 1960 Education: University of Southern California (B.A.) Other public offices held: Member of the U.S. House of Representatives Nevada's 2nd Congressional District (2007-2011) Nevada Secretary of State (1995-2007) State Assemblyman (1990-1994) Total donations: $24,223,634 (1/1/05-5/23/18) Top donors: Station Casinos $117,900 Votesane PAC $92,000 MGM Resorts International $74,500 Blackstone Group $48,400 Capital Group $38,800 Credit: Center for Responsive Politics

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