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Trump’s Nevada play leaves nation’s nuclear waste in limbo via Politico

The president wants to win the state he narrowly lost in 2016, but he may be jumping into an energy issue.

By ERIC WOLFF and ANTHONY ADRAGNA

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Trump, who is targeting a state that he narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016, announced the turnabout in a tweet this month, writing: “Nevada, I hear you on Yucca Mountain and my Administration will RESPECT you!” He also pledged to find “innovative approaches” to find a new place to store the 90,000 metric tons of nuclear plant leftovers stranded at 120 temporary storage sites — an impasse that is on course to cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.

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The statement surprised people involved in the debate because developing a permanent nuclear repository at Yucca has long been a priority of Republicans, and even Trump’s own budget proposals in previous years had sought money to keep it alive. Taxpayers spent $15 billion developing the nuclear site after Congress selected the location during the Reagan era, only to see the Obama administration freeze the plan amid opposition from the state’s political leaders.

Trump’s Yucca reversal echoed his previous efforts to untangle a political food fight involving the federal ethanol mandate, an attempt that left both gasoline refiners and Iowa’s corn growers furious. Once again, Trump could face political risks by intervening in a politically charged, no-win energy quagmire.

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“It’s a no-win situation for anybody, that doesn’t seem to change,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is neutral on Yucca but supports building a repository somewhere.

Further complicating the problem, he said, was a 1982 law that prohibits the Energy Department from spending money building interim nuclear storage unless it has a construction license for Yucca Mountain.

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Congress designated Yucca Mountain in 1987 to be the eventual home for all U.S. high-level nuclear waste, and in 2002, President George W. Bush approved a measure for the Energy Department to proceed on construction. But political opposition to the project in Nevada grew, and Nevada Democrat Harry Reid’s ascension as Senate majority leader in 2007 allowed him to stop it from advancing.

The result: All the waste piling up at the nation’s aging nuclear reactors will remain in storage at the plant sites, even after they retire and cease operations. And plant shutdowns may be accelerating as nuclear power suffers from competition with inexpensive wind, solar and natural gas. The U.S. has 96 operational reactors, and eight of them are scheduled to retire in the next five years.

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Others fear a host of less-visible costs from the lingering stalemate in Washington that leaves the waste scattered at retired power plants across the country. Nuclear plants are often on valuable coastal real estate — retired nuclear plants in Massachusetts and Florida both sit on beaches, and one in Wisconsin sits on the shores of Lake Michigan.

“Communities that really understand the damage are those that don’t even have an operating nuclear power plant,” said Rep. John Shimkus (Ill.), a senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee. “They’re losing the ability to redevelop that site. And in some locations where they could get a huge return on investment.”

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