By Maggie Haberman
Before the 2018 midterm elections, Senator Dean Heller stood with President Trump in the glittering Trump International Hotel near the Las Vegas Strip, looking out from the top floor, and pointed.
“I said, ‘See those railroad tracks?’” Mr. Heller, a Nevada Republican who lost his seat later that year, recalled in an interview. Nuclear waste to be carted to Yucca Mountain for permanent storage would have to travel along the tracks, within a half-mile of the hotel, Mr. Heller said.
“I think he calculated pretty quickly what that meant,” Mr. Heller said. “I think it all made sense. There was a moment of reflection, of, ‘Oh, OK.’”
Whether the waste would have traveled along those particular tracks is a subject of debate. But the conversation appears to have helped focus Mr. Trump, who in recent weeks seemed to end his administration’s support for moving nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, a proposal that had been embraced by his appointees for three years despite his own lack of interest.
Yucca Mountain, in the desert about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was conceived as a permanent storage place for the nation’s radioactive waste, which is currently scattered across dozens of holding sites around the country.
Nationally, Republicans have long favored the proposal, which was developed in the late 1980s and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. But Nevada politicians of both parties have remained steadfastly opposed to the policy, which is deeply unpopular in the state.
“I don’t know of a major elected official in Nevada today, or in the last five years or 10 years, for that matter, that hasn’t specifically pushed to keep the waste out of the state,” Mr. Heller said.
The project was halted by President Barack Obama, partly at the urging of Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada who was the Senate majority leader at the time, but most Republican leaders outside of the state remained supportive. While the plans for Yucca remain law as set under Mr. Bush, Congress has never moved to fund it since.
People close to Mr. Trump, who won the Republican nomination in what amounted to a hostile takeover of the party, say he never favored the idea despite suggesting at the end of the 2016 presidential campaign that he was looking at it. But he also did not care enough to intervene as his previous energy secretary, Rick Perry, supported the measure, and as the Office of Management and Budget listed $120 million in the president’s budget to restart the licensing process of the site. It was listed as one of the administration’s priorities.
Two of Mr. Trump’s political advisers, Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, flagged Yucca Mountain early on as a political danger zone, particularly if Mr. Trump wanted to try to put Nevada in play in 2020.
But it showed up in the budget, and Mr. Perry toured the site in March 2017, shortly after he and the Energy Department were sued by the attorney general in Mr. Perry’s home state — Texas, which has been one of the few places in the country accepting low-level nuclear waste — for not licensing Yucca Mountain.