Harry Reid, nuclear waste, and the politics of NIMBY

    In retirement, Harry Reid will be remembered for his pugilistic support of President Obama, most notably the key role he played coaxing health care reform through the Senate. What most people don’t know – and this too is part of his legacy – is that he’s the reason we have no national repository for nuclear waste.

    If not for Reid, roughly 77,000 metric tons of spent radioactive fuel from roughly 100 commercial nuclear plants would already be secreted deep inside Yucca Mountain – a site OK’d by Congress back in 1987.

    More than $15 billion in taxpayer money has been spent to ready the Nevada repository, but it has never opened. Reid takes the credit (or blame). As he recently said, “The place is locked up, it’s padlocked….As long as I’m around, there’s no Yucca Mountain.”

    The big question now is what will happen when he’s no longer around. Yesterday, for the first time in years, a congressional delegation toured the desert site, 90 miles from Vegas, hoping to spark what one House Republican calls “an honest conversation” about opening Yucca’s doors. The waste is currently being stored at nuclear plants in 34 states – including six sites in Pennsylvania and two sites in New Jersey – and everyone wants that stuff outta there.

    I frankly don’t know whether Yucca is a good choice – although it has been studied to death, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded in ’14 that Yucca’s design “meets the requirements” for a site that can safely store waste for one million years. I’m most interested in the Yucca politics – because Yucca is a classic combination of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) and NOMW (Not on My Watch).

    No way Reid was going to let Yucca open on his watch. He would’ve sung on stage at Caesar’s Palace before he’d dare tick off his NIMBY voters. So he forged a deal in ’08 with candidate Barack Obama: he agreed to fight tooth and nail in the Senate for Obama’s legislative agenda if Obama agreed to put the skids on Yucca.

    And that’s what happened. In ’09 Obama installed a Reid man, Gregory Jaczko, as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Whereupon Jaczko halted the Yucca licensing review process so egregiously that a federal appeals court later rebuked the NRC for “flouting the law.” Jaczko quit in 2012, a year before his term was up – thereby freeing the NRC to conclude last year that Yucca would meet the safety requirements.

    But that development is moot anyway, because Obama is honoring his deal with Reid. Obama said in 2010 that Yucca is “unworkable,” and he ordered the Energy Department to scuttle further funding. (Pennsylvania’s nuke plants would surely love to ship their radioactive waste somewhere, if only because – here’s a fun fact – Pennsylvania’s 6500 metric tons are the highest of any state, except Illinois.)

    You’d be wrong to assume, however, that Reid’s crusade has been partisan. Even though a couple junior Nevada Republican congressmen have been jonesing to open Yucca, the GOP’s heaviest home-state hitters are in sync with Reid. Their argument is that since Nevada has no nuke plants of its own (true), it shouldn’t be the nation’s dumping ground. Dean Heller, Nevada’s Republican senator, says: “Yucca’s dead….Can I stop it? I will do everything in my capacity to do so.” The Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, says the same.

    So I guess the lesson of Yucca is that NOMW and NIMBY are bipartisan concepts. Who says it’s impossible to reach across the aisle?

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    Meanwhile…

    It looks like Hillary Clinton is poised to launch on Sunday. Her aides say that “people know of Clinton – she has near 100 percent name recognition in most polls – but they don’t know her story.” (Huh? In 2007 and 2008, she didn’t have umpteen opportunities to share her story?)

    CNN says that “Clinton is expected to trade big rallies for a series of smaller events with voters, as she seeks to reintroduce herself to voters. Her supporters have urged Clinton to take the time to meet voters one-on-one…”

    Fine. But that brings to mind a brilliant line from last season’s finale of Veep. Selina Meyer is vying in the primaries to become the first elected female president; she’s in smile mode, doing the one-on-one routine. And her campaign manager murmurs to a colleague, “She’s so good at making people think she’s good at people.”

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