Susan Ferrechio Chief Congressional Correspondent The Washington Examiner
The long-stalled plan to open a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has a strong chance of being revived in a Trump administration, especially now that Harry Reid, the longtime opponent of the project, will no longer lead Democrats in the Senate.
The Trump transition team has already signaled interest in reviving the site, which was legally designated to store the nation's nuclear waste back in 2002 but has languished, unfunded, thanks to opposition from Congress and the White House.
Reid, D-Nev., has been a one-man blockade against the Yucca Mountain waste site for the past 14 years. He cut deals with presidents and Congress to keep funding and licensing for Yucca all but dead. But Reid is retiring and won't be back in January, leaving many to predict Yucca's chances of revival have suddenly surged.
"Certainly with Reid gone, the odds go up," Benjamin Zycher, an energy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Washington Examiner.
The incoming Trump administration signaled in November that it is interested in reviving Yucca, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as part of a plan to extend the life of U.S. nuclear power plants. Transition officials sent a list of questions to the Department of Energy asking about legal impediments to restarting the Yucca Mountain project and reviving the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which was closed by the Obama administration.
"With Harry Reid leaving and the new administration coming in, it is likely to get renewed interest," Samuel Brinton, a senior policy analyst specializing in nuclear waste, told the Examiner, "But there are so many things that need to happen to restart Yucca Mountain."
A licensing application is underway, thanks to a 2013 U.S. Court of Appeals order that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must either "approve or reject" Yucca Mountain's application.
Leslie Paige, a spokesman for Citizens against Government Waste, said billions of dollars have been wasted on the stalled project, much of it in payouts to the utilities who successfully sued the government for failing to collect the nuclear waste.
"The Trump administration can get the project going again," Paige told the Examiner. "They are going to need to reconvene the experts at the Department of Energy who know about Yucca. It's not going to be rapid. They may not be able to finish immediately, but they can certainly reconvene the experts to start the discussion about how to get it up and running."
Yucca would likely get a boost under the Trump administration because the Department of Energy would no longer act in opposition to the project.
"The license is technically under review, but you don't have an applicant on the other side," Brinton said. "Now there is likely to be a resurgence in interest and that means the Department of Energy will likely step up as an applicant," rather than an opponent.
Congress could also revive the project by allocating money. For years, Reid has helped ensure annual spending bills exclude funding for licensing and development of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., a top member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, backs legislation that would amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to provide the land and water rights to build the waste site at Yucca Mountain.
But even with Reid gone, there may still be hurdles in Congress. Nevada's congressional delegation, including Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Reid's successor, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, also oppose Yucca Mountain.
While Nevada did not vote for Trump, it remains a critical swing state and residents there mostly oppose the Yucca Mountain project, which could create another political hurdle for the Trump administration.
And even if Congress and Trump agree to move forward on the project, experts say it faces many hurdles in the form of environmental and safety studies.
Reid said last month any effort to restart Yucca is "doomed to failure" and would cost billions. He said the equipment needed to dig the five-mile storage hole on the site "has been ground up for junk and sent to China or wherever they send ground-up metal."
But it will be easier to restart the discussion without Reid in the Senate, Paige said.
"One person stood in the way of this for a very long time and that was Senator Harry Reid," she said. "As long as he was in position to block it he was committed to doing that. And he did that."
MY TAKE: New Year. New administration. New hope for this critical issue. We'll see.