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In reversal, Trump drops Yucca Mountain as nuclear waste site

President has asked Congress to pay to license Yucca in each of his three previous budget proposals

The president’s fiscal 2021 budget will not include funding for the licensing of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository, a senior administration official confirmed to CQ Roll Call on Thursday.

President Donald Trump tweeted earlier what appeared to be a rejection of the long-debated plans for the federal site about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, an abrupt reversal of his administration’s policy.

“Nevada, I hear you on Yucca Mountain and my Administration will RESPECT you! Congress and previous Administrations have long failed to find lasting solutions — my Administration is committed to exploring innovative approaches — I’m confident we can get it done!” the president tweeted Thursday evening.

Yucca has long been a point of congressional contention between Republicans and some more hawkish Democrats pressing for its use to store nuclear waste there and the Nevada delegation, which has traditionally fought hard to block use of the facility.

The administration’s decision could be a setback for the struggling nuclear power industry. The lack of a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel is one of several headwinds — along with with the high cost of new plants and competition from low-cost renewable energy sources — for the expansion of nuclear power.

In each of his three previous budget proposals, Trump has asked Congress to pay to license Yucca, only to be rebuffed. The White House budget proposal for fiscal 2021 is expected to be unveiled on Monday.

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Current and retired Nevada senators welcomed the announcement. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who vigorously objected to the project during his Senate years, cheered Trump’s announcement in a statement.

“Yucca Mountain is dead and will remain dead. This has been true for a long, long time,” Reid said. “Donald Trump finally realizing this, changing his position and trying to take credit for its demise will not change that fact,” he said. “I’m glad he has finally seen the light.”

Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, tweeted that most of the state’s residents oppose using Yucca to store waste. The state’s junior senator, Jacky Rosen, also a Democrat, said she was “relieved” the president listened to opponents of the site.

“I look forward to working with you on this critical issue for Nevada and ensuring your budget doesn’t include any funding to restart the failed Yucca Mountain project that a majority of Nevadans reject, regardless of party,” Cortez Masto told Trump on Twitter.

“I remain committed to ensuring Nevada remains safe and never becomes the nation’s nuclear waste dump,” Rosen said. “It’s why I’ve worked in both the House and the Senate to build bipartisan coalitions to oppose Yucca — and will continue to pressure any administration to stand up for our safety.”

Reversal

Shifting stances on Yucca may benefit Trump during the 2020 presidential election, since Nevada is a swing state. Trump lost its six electoral votes to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a little more than 2 points.

Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry had lobbied hard to open Yucca when defending the president’s budgets on Capitol Hill. 

Appearing before House appropriators in March, Perry brought a map showing 38 sites where nuclear waste awaits a permanent storage facility.

“Is this going to be our solution?” Perry asked. “I certainly hope that’s not the case.”

Under questioning from Cortez Masto in April, before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Perry defended the storage site as “safe.”

The decision not to fund Yucca is likely to come as a disappointment to some congressional Republicans, including Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, who has led the charge to open Yucca to spent fuel. 

Shimkus told CQ Roll Call in January that Yucca was the linchpin to a long-term nuclear waste cleanup strategy for the country. And he applauded the removal of an interim-storage pilot program worth $22.5 million and sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, from the fiscal 2020 budget.

“That was a victory for us,” Shimkus said. “We’ve been trying to work with Feinstein and Alexander and really the compromise is moved to long term storage while you do interim.”

The program would have moved some nuclear waste from where it sits, generally in casks at nuclear power stations, to medium-term storage sites and then potentially to Yucca.

Built in 1987, Yucca was designed as the eventual sole site where America would send its nuclear waste. But the location has run into legal and political hurdles in Nevada, where many residents and the gaming industry oppose it. The president is the co-owner of the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, according to his latest financial disclosure statements, filed in May 2019. 

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