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Jeff Beattie, Energy Daily: Senate GOP leaders seen slowing Yucca project to save Heller–and majority

January 16, 2018 | BY JEFF BEATTIE | Energy Daily

Despite solid support from President Trump and Republican legislative leaders, the long-delayed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project appears to have hit a wall in the Senate due to increasing concerns among Republican leaders about helping embattled Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller win re-election so they can keep their narrowing majority, some industry sources say.

The sources say the recent loss of a GOP-held seat in Alabama to Democrat Doug Jones significantly increased the anxiety of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) by reducing Republicans’ majority in the Senate to a scant 51-49 margin. They say McConnell now appears likely to give Heller free rein to bash the Yucca project in order to score political points in Nevada, where the proposed repository is unpopular.

The Senate’s failure to move on the Energy Department nuclear waste disposal project—which is already decades behind schedule—has exasperated Yucca supporters in the House, where legislation to rejuvenate the repository was approved in committee in the spring, only to then languish despite Trump administration calls to advance the effort.

Industry sources grumble that McConnell’s political worries about Heller’s seat appear likely to keep the Yucca project on ice for the remainder of 2018—notwithstanding Republican’s previous criticism that President Obama illegally obstructed development of the repository to meet the political desires of former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), a fierce Yucca opponent.

Perhaps the clearest sign of McConnell’s concern about Heller came in July when Senate leaders who have long supported the Yucca project provided no funding for it in a fiscal year 2018 spending bill, a surprise move for which Heller promptly claimed credit.

“I am the only person standing between Yucca Mountain happening and not happening,” Heller told Nevada reporters in October.

Republicans’ efforts to boost Heller have become even more noticeable in recent months. The Nevada senator has been prominently positioned next to McConnell or President Trump at high-profile events, including last month’s signing of GOP tax reform legislation, in what looks like an effort to generate footage for campaign usage.

Despite that, Heller trails Danny Tarkanian, who is backed by Steve Bannon, in polls on the Republican primary contest in Nevada. A late October poll had Tarkanian, a five-time loser in previous statewide Nevada elections, leading Heller by six points.

“McConnell seems to be bending over backwards for Heller, but Heller keeps falling farther and farther behind in his bid for re-election,” said one industry source who wants to see progress on Yucca. “At some point you would think McConnell would want Heller to show some indication that there is actually some way for him to win.”

McConnell’s office did not respond to requests for comment on allegations that he was blocking Yucca to help Heller.

A spokeswoman for Heller also did not respond to those assertions and instead forwarded a Heller statement contending the Yucca project was unsafe for Nevada residents.

“Nevada continues to reject Yucca Mountain not only because of the threat it poses to the people of southern Nevada and those living along the proposed transportation routes, but it also threatens the tourism industry that is the backbone of our economy,” Heller said.

“A state without a single nuclear power plant should not have to shoulder the entire nation’s nuclear waste burden,” he continued. “Instead of pursuing a failed project that has already cost taxpayers billions of dollars, the administration should pursue the only sustainable path forward: a consent-based siting approach”—meaning the Obama administration’s plan to find a state to volunteer to host the repository for money and economic benefits.

Industry sources complain that the GOP campaign to save Heller is irresponsible because Yucca Mountain was formally designated by Congress as the nation’s only repository project for spent commercial reactor fuel and high-level radioactive waste from past nuclear weapons production.

One source also suggests Senate leaders are wrong to block $120 million in funds proposed by the Trump administration for Yucca because continued delays in the project will expose the federal government to more damage claims from nuclear utilities. Utilities already have extracted tens of millions of dollars in damage payments from DOE over its failure to fulfill contractual obligations to take their spent nuclear fuel for disposal.

“The GOP Senate seems intent on blocking $120 million to solve the nuclear waste problem, but are okay with spending $720 million per year in liability for not solving it,” said the source.

Pro-Yucca lawmakers and industry officials are even more frustrated because 2017 was supposed to mark the end of delay for Yucca due to the retirement of Reid and Obama.

Reid spent his 30-year Senate career blocking progress on the repository, which he contended was unsafe and unfairly foisted on Nevadans by the federal government. Over his last eight years in office, Reid convinced Obama to halt work on the project.

But by early 2017 both were gone, and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subcommittee, began moving legislation (H.R. 3053) designed to fix the major problems facing the project, including dealing with land access and funding.

Energy Daily

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