Odds for Completing Yucca Mountain Seen Increasing With Reid's Upcoming Retirement

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By Ari Natter

March 27 — The planned retirement of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) increases the odds for completion of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository the lawmaker has spent his career opposing, analysts told Bloomberg BNA March 27.

Optimism for the nuclear waste repository, proposed 90 miles north of Las Vegas, was already increasing after Reid's tenure as Senate majority leader ended when Republicans won control of the Senate.

Reid's announcement that he doesn't plan to seek reelection is “constructive for Yucca over the long term,” Christi Tezak, an analyst with ClearView Energy Partners, said in an e-mail.

Senate Democrats who were less likely to openly support using the site opposed by Reid and the Obama administration may feel free to do so once Reid is no longer in charge of their caucus, said Tim Frazier, who previously managed nuclear programs at the Energy Department.

Changed Senate Dynamic 

“It certainly changes the dynamic,” Frazier, who now serves as a senior policy adviser on nuclear issues for the Bipartisan Policy Center, said in an interview. “It changes the discussion on Capitol Hill, but the hurdles are still out there. It doesn’t make Yucca Mountain a slam dunk by any means.”

Proponents of the project argue that Reid's retirement announcement adds momentum for approval of the Yucca Mountain site. For example, the NRC Safety Evaluation Report recently found the site meets federal regulatory requirements.

“I think this makes the pitch easier in the Senate, obviously. The number of reasons to oppose Yucca Mountain was rapidly dwindling, and another one just bit the dust,” a Republican Senate aide told Bloomberg BNA. “Now it is possible for people looking at this to say, ‘I could give a little less weight to the political calculation'. ”

Designated as Waste Repository in 1987 

Congress in 1987 designated Yucca Mountain as the site for building a geologic repository to store radioactive waste from the nation's fleet of commercial reactors, but after many years of preliminary work the project has stalled amidst opposition from Reid and the Obama administration, which has sought to kill the project by eliminating Nuclear Regulatory Commission funding for the project's licensing process.

Reid, whose term ends in 2016, has opposed the project since he was first elected to Congress in 1983, Jim Manley, a former Reid aide, told Bloomberg BNA.

Reid's efforts to block the project have ranged from plans “to make sure anti-Yucca people are confirmed to key regulatory posts overseeing the project, to making sure annual Republican efforts to include language in appropriations bills never see the light of day,” Manley said. “He’s made the case to the present and other senior officials this is a project that should not go forward.”

Will Try to Kill Project 

Reid is expected to use his remaining 22 months in Congress to “kill that thing once and for all,” Manley said, including efforts to block Republicans from successfully appropriating money to the NRC to continue licensing work on the project. “He’ll look for ways to put a nail in that coffin. What it is I don’t know.”

While Reid's retirement increases the odds of an eventual deal on Yucca Mountain, supposing a consensus can be reached, it will probably take years before the facility begins accepting spent nuclear fuel, Rob Barnett, an energy policy analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, said in an e-mail.

“It makes it much more likely. But still unlikely,” said Michael McKenna, an energy lobbyist who is close to Republican leaders in Congress.

Operators of commercial nuclear reactors, which currently keep most of their spent fuel on site, argue that Yucca Mountain or some other centralized facility to store radioactive waste is needed for the nuclear energy industry to have a future.

Seen as Major Issue for Industry 

“This issue is bigger than any one member of Congress,” Greg White, chairman of the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, said in a statement provided to Bloomberg BNA. “In the meantime and for as long as it takes, the NWSC and many other stakeholders will continue to encourage Congressional members to call for the completion of the Yucca Mountain license application, as well as for other nuclear waste management program reforms for which we have been waiting and for which electric consumers deserve.” White is also a Michigan Public Service commissioner.

The coalition represents nuclear utilities such as Southern Co. and DTE Energy, as well as several public utility commissions and others who support the development of a nuclear waste repository for commercial radioactive waste.

Reid, 75, announced his retirement March 27 via video in which he said he was re-evaluating his career after an accident in his exercise room, which resulted in a serious eye injury causing multiple surgeries and several broken bones.

“I haven’t been perfect, but I’ve really tried my hardest to represent the people of the state of Nevada,” he said.

A Reid spokeswoman didn't respond to a request for comment.

Reid to Remain Vigilant 

“Senator Reid will continue to use every tool at his disposal to ensure that zero funds are wasted on restarting Yucca,” Kristen Orthman, a spokeswoman for Reid said in an e-mail to Bloomberg BNA in late 2014. 

“A shrinking number of Republicans cannot get over their obsession with dumping toxic waste in Nevada. It’s time for these Republicans to realize that wasting more taxpayer money on Yucca will lead to nothing but a dead-end,” Orthman continued. “Instead, they should join the bipartisan efforts to find workable solutions that require state and local consent, rather than shoveling nuclear waste down Nevada’s throat.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ari Natter in Washington at anatter@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com