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Yucca Mountain: Harry Reid’s Retirement Demands Shift in Opposition Strategy

Since Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced his retirement earlier this year, the issue of a proposed national storage site for nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel (SNF) at Yucca Mountain, Nevada is back in the news. Senator Reid’s staunch opposition to the project has long been recognized as the biggest hurdle standing in its way. With Reid’s exit and the loss of a key cog in opposition public affairs strategy, there is talk that the project may finally get back on track after nearly 30 years of debate.

And it’s not just Reid’s departure that has Yucca Mountain’s prospects looking up. After Senator Reid retires in 2016, Senate Energy and Water subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will have new levels of influence. Senator Alexander’s support for the project is well-known. As such, opposition groups in Nevada and among national environmental activist groups will be looking for a new champion. Enter the likely incoming leader of the Senate Democrats Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

While is not widely known where Senator Schumer stands on Yucca Mountain, he likely won’t oppose the project with the same heavy-handedness as his predecessor. That is, unless, opposition groups can convince him otherwise. Yucca Mountain opponents have been relatively silent during the Harry Reid era because they haven’t had to be vocal. They had their man on the inside. Now, however, they need to start courting powerful support in Washington, D.C.—and Senator Schumer is a logical place to start.

First of all, storing nuclear waste and SNF at Yucca Mountain will require those materials to be transported there, primarily via truck and rail lines. Waste materials coming from New York and New England will travel through Senator Schumer’s home state, and those coming from the rest of the country will travel through Illinois and a number of other solidly blue states.

If opponents can articulate a strong case about safety issues, (perhaps by leveraging recent accidents involving trains carrying oil and other energy resources), they may succeed in winning the support of Senators Schumer, Durbin (D-IL), and others who may see the risks to their home states as simply too high to justify moving forward with the Yucca Mountain project.

On the flip side, an equally powerful campaign to win the support of these Democratic leaders for Yucca could be waged as they represent two of the most nuclearized states in the nation. Illinois’ eleven, and New York’s six nuclear plants have together generated over 13,000 metric tons of waste that in the absence of the Yucca facility remains right at home. As such, supporters for finally moving that waste to a permanent and safer repository could make a stirring safety argument of their own.

While the nuclear industry needs to raise the safety issue of leaving waste on location at America’s nuclear plants, it must also shift the conversation from one about risks to one about benefits—be they jobs, lower energy prices, long-term sustainability in energy production, and most certainly, dramatic progress on climate change.

Furthermore, it will need to take that message not just to Capitol Hill, but the country at large. As we’ve seen with fracking, the Keystone Pipeline, and offshore drilling, environmental groups are adept at swaying public policy by building grassroots support.

All that said, chances are that Yucca’s fate will be woven into America’s evolving views on climate change. Environmentalists’ traditional abhorrence of nuclear must come face to face with their deeply held view that we need to move rapidly towards a zero-emission world. The U.S. shale gas boom and progress on solar and wind has lowered our carbon profile, but those who insist that we achieve a two degree centigrade limit must be honest about how we achieve that within the time frame they say is necessary, without increasing the nuclear option.

In the end, it is likely that the conversation on Yucca must turn on the conversation about climate change if the project is to be become reality.

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