Once Thought Dead, Is Yucca Mountain Coming Back to Life?

The nuclear zombie rises

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Yucca Mountain

If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, you must love Yucca Mountain. It keeps coming back.

In the new budget submitted by President Donald Trump, we can’t afford the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, or to take care of the poor and sick, but we can afford $120 million to get the licensing back on track for a nuclear waste dump about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Sen. Dean Heller’s response was the reverse Bart Simpson: He had a cow. “As has been stated in the past, Yucca is dead and this reckless proposal will not revive it,” he said. “Washington needs to understand what Nevada has been saying for years: We will not be the nation’s nuclear waste dump. This project was ill-conceived from the beginning and has already flushed billions of taxpayer dollars down the drain.”

Yucca Mountain was conceived in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, his close friend Paul Laxalt was a U.S. senator from Nevada and Democrats had a lot more power in Washington. Nevada was one of three finalists for the dump, and, in 1987, the “Screw Nevada” bill made ours the only site under consideration. Wielding the screwdriver was Bennett Johnston, a Louisiana Democrat.

In Nevada’s 1982 election, Republican Chic Hecht defeated four-term Democrat Howard Cannon, then one of the Senate’s senior members. After Laxalt’s term ended in 1987, Nevada had two freshmen in the Senate. I once had the chance to ask Cannon what would have happened if he had still been in the Senate when Johnston introduced his bill. He replied, “He wouldn’t have. I had too much seniority.” I asked, “But what if he had?” Cannon said, “I would have made Louisiana disappear.”

So it was and sometimes still is: Seniority and power count in the Senate. Some Democrats truly opposed the dump, but Harry Reid settled all opinions. By 1999, he was assistant minority leader and, with Reid heading the Senate Democrats with a Democratic president, the dump had as much of a chance of becoming reality as I do of being mistaken for Lady Gaga.

Washington needs to understand what Nevada has been saying for years: We will not be the nation’s nuclear waste dump.

Reid’s successor, Catherine Cortez Masto, doesn’t have his power—not yet, anyway—and can’t be blamed for Yucca Mountain’s revival. Nor can the House delegation: The three Southern Nevadans—including Dina Titus, who literally wrote the book on atomic testing—blistered the administration.

Should Heller be blamed? No. And yes.

The no is simple enough: He opposes Yucca Mountain. If he had his druthers, this wouldn’t have happened. But there’s a lesson in all of this—including, to be fair, for Cortez Masto. The question is whether those involved will learn from it.

Heller didn’t endorse Trump (nor did Gov. Brian Sandoval, Heller’s close friend, critic of the GOP “health care” plan and possible object of administration scorn here). Heller criticized Trump’s misogyny, Mexican-bashing and attack on Sen. John McCain. But he never said exactly how he voted in the presidential election—just that he wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, had no intentions of voting for Trump, could go for none of the above … and might change his mind on Election Day.

So, he waffled. It’s worth remembering that in 2000, when Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore said he wouldn’t support the nuclear dump, Nevada Republicans led the charge to get George W. Bush to say his decision would be based on “sound science.” Two years later, his administration said it didn’t matter, it was going forward with the dump. The Nevada Republicans who supported Bush in 2000 still won their next elections, and one of them, Senator John Ensign, found it impossible to get any fellow Senate Republicans to join him in opposing the dump.

So, this might not hurt Heller, especially if Yucca disappears from the final bill and Heller wrongly gets to claim credit. But it should. After his election-year dance, he has voted down the line with Trump—including voting to confirm Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin after filleting him during a committee hearing. He can continue to raise questions about the Obamacare repeal and claim bipartisanship, but this is the record he’ll have to live with.

Cortez Masto may have learned something, too. Seeking confirmation as secretary of a department he once said he wanted to eliminate if he could remember what it was called, Rick Perry wouldn’t tell her where he stood, just that he would “work very closely” with her on the nuclear dump issue. She may have seen the wisdom of Psalm 146 instructing to “put not your trust in princes,” or, perhaps, the Trump administration.

The ultimate irony is that Laxalt’s grandson, the state attorney general, says he’ll sue the administration over Yucca Mountain. Adam Laxalt’s biggest supporter, Sheldon Adelson, gave millions to the Trump campaign. We could use some of that money to pay the outside attorneys Laxalt will hire to fight the dump.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.