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Harry Reid's legacy: A staunch opponent of Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site

Reid spent his career fighting against the proposal
Election 2020 Yucca Mountain
Harry Reid
Federal Plutonium Nevada
Yucca Mountain
Posted at 10:19 PM, Dec 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-29 01:19:51-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Over a decades-long political career, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be remembered for many battles fought on behalf of Nevadans. Perhaps one of the most memorable was his vehement opposition to the Yucca Mountain disposal site.

The Yucca Mountain saga followed Reid throughout his career in the Senate. The Department of Energy recommended the site for a nuclear waste repository in 1986, the year Reid was elected to the Senate.

IN-DEPTH: History of Yucca Mountain | 1982-2018

Reid crusaded against the measure from the beginning, along with the rest of Nevada's congressional delegation.

"The state’s leaders and pundits protested this 'Screw Nevada' bill, which they ascribed to the state’s lack of political clout," wrote Michael Green, associate professor of history at UNLV, in a 2018 High Country News editorial.

But as Reid's political clout grew — from first-time senator to majority leader — so did his sway with those who had the power to send Yucca Mountain into Congressional limbo.

Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 22, 2007, following debate on the Iraq funding bill. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Reid worked to cut funding for the project, fought against Yucca provisions in spending bills, and sought to have skeptics appointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Hill reported.

When he took office, former President Barack Obama ended funding for the site, reportedly at Reid's urging.

The plan to dispose of used fuel at the site has been notoriously unpopular among the majority of Nevadans. Two-thirds of the state were opposed, a 2017 Nevada Independent pollfound.

When Reid retired from the Senate, Yucca Mountain opponents were concerned the plan might be revived. Supporters hoped it would, arguing that Yucca Mountain, approximately 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is a viable option to solve the country's long-term problem of storing its nuclear waste.

Yucca Mountain
**FILE** In this June 25, 2002 file photo, showing a view from the summit ridge of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump near Mercury, Nev.,looking west towards California. The Bush administration moved a step closer to building a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada on Tuesday, June 3, 2008, filing a formal application for a construction license. (AP Photo/Joe Cavaretta, File)

As of 2016, nuclear fuel was being stored at 121 sites across 39 states. More than 160 million Americans lived within 75 miles of the sites. No one lived within 5 miles of Yucca Mountain and very few people lived within 15 miles. Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety evaluations concluded that Yucca Mountain meets all of the technical and safety requirements for the disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste, and would remain safe for one million years.

In 2018, the House approved a bill to revive the project, which directed the DOE to continue its licensing process for Yucca Mountain while moving forward with a separate plan for a temporary storage site in New Mexico or Texas.

Nevada's congressional delegation continued the work Reid had championed and fervently opposed the project in subsequent years. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump appeared to signal wavering support of its pursuit.

At the time, Reid was adamant: "Yucca Mountain is dead and will remain dead. This has been true for a long, long time," he wrote.