In Nevada, Trump administration revives a radioactive campaign issue

By Alexander Tin

/ CBS News

Last year, the Trump administration faced a dilemma: where could the Department of Energy stow a metric ton of surplus, weapons grade plutonium?

Efforts to recycle thousands of pounds in unwanted radioactive material had been crippled by cost overruns. Now the government faced a court ordered deadline to remove the plutonium from South Carolina, where it had been stockpiled.

For the plutonium's new home, the administration turned to Nevada. Over the state's objections, authorities planned to ship some of the radioactive material to a site adjacent to Yucca Mountain, where the federal government has long sought to store dangerous nuclear waste.

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In the decades since Congress selected Yucca Mountain to hold the nation's nuclear waste, efforts to block the project have become a bipartisan rallying cry in Nevada. Opposition to the project has created rare political alignments, with groups as disparate as the Nevada Parent Teacher Association and the Las Vegas resort industry joining forces to stop it.

As a primary candidate in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama fought back radio ads in Nevada accusing him of embracing the Yucca Mountain project. A year later as president, Obama acted to keep his campaign pledge to shutter Yucca Mountain, which is located some 70 miles north of Las Vegas.

President Trump has not made the same promise. In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Mr. Trump suggested he "would be very inclined to be against" using the mountain, but his administration had reliably submitted budgets to fund the nuclear waste dump.

The state fought for months in court to block the new waste delivery, until a bombshell revelation in early 2019 that the administration had already quietly trucked in much of the plutonium, with details kept secret for "operational security."

The response from Nevada's government was swift.

"They lied to the state of Nevada, misled a federal court, and jeopardized the safety of Nevada's families and environment," Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a statement. Nevada Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen slammed the move as "deceitful" and "unethical."

Energy Secretary Rick Perry then struck a deal with Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, and department has since promised to pull out the plutonium. But the shipment has added fuel to a political firestorm in Nevada over recent efforts to resurrect Yucca Mountain, sowing mistrust over a key issue for the state, which is home an early and important presidential primary contest.

On Wednesday, the administration's push to reopen Yucca Mountain that drew a forceful condemnation from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"The proposal by President Trump and Republicans in Congress to send our nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain would be a geological, environmental, and social disaster," the presidential candidate said in a statement.

Sanders joins a long list of fellow White House hopefuls in questioning the project's future, including former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and former Obama HUD secretary Julián Castro.

Opponents have long cited the risks of seismic activity under the site, and its proximity to an aquifer and a military test range. They have rejected arguments that Yucca Mountain would hasten the transfer to a more environmentally friendly economy, warning of the risks for communities through which waste would pass through.

"Accidents happen. This is a dangerous substance you're talking about transporting thousands of miles on a regular basis, for a long period of time, and you're thinking nothing is going to happen? It's a danger," Taj Ainlay, chair of southern Nevada's Sierra Club, told CBS News. "That alone should make people upset."

Proponents of the site insist safety measures at the site would be effective. Outside Nevada, there is bipartisan frustration over spent radioactive fuel piling up at temporary waste dumps. And some Nevadans, including those in the county home to Yucca Mountain, argue the decision should be left in the hands of federal regulators.

"I personally believe that we're missing the point of Yucca Mountain. We have an opportunity to spur high-level education, high-level jobs, well-paying jobs," Nye County Commissioner Leo Blundo, the county's nuclear liaison, told CBS News.

"What I have difficulty understanding from our federal colleagues, you know our two senators, is why don't we we just move forward and hear the science," Blundo added.

Before being unseated in 2018, Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller claimed to be "the only person standing between Yucca Mountain happening and not happening."

Testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Rosen — Heller's successor — joined Cortez-Masto in calling on Congress to help Nevada block Yucca Mountain. Their bill would require consent from state and local authorities before storing nuclear waste in their respective jurisdictions.

Only six other senators have so far cosponsored the proposal: Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

First published on May 2, 2019 / 3:27 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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