Visiting Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2011 was like walking through a ghost town, Rep. John Shimkus recalled in an interview this week.
It was the year after the Obama administration surrendered to fervent local opposition and halted work by the Department of Energy to prepare the site to store the nation’s commercial nuclear waste, even though Congress designated it for that purpose in the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
By the time Shimkus arrived, empty desks and cubicles sat abandoned where hundreds of people had worked on those preparations, which included submitting an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“They just locked the doors and told everyone to take their personal items and leave,” he said. “When you went back, there [were] still coffee cups on the desk.”
The Illinois Republican would bring those observations back to Capitol Hill, admonishing DOE officials for what he called a “colossal waste of resources.” His criticism was grounded in the $15 billion the federal government spent preparing and studying the site — an amount the Obama administration was willing to write off in the face of intense local concern, including from then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, over storing waste that would remain deadly for thousands of years.
Like a lone ranger in the Old West trying to right what he perceived to be an illegal action by the administration, the House’s most vocal and intense proponent of turning Yucca into a nuclear waste storage site has visited Nevada five times over the past decade in an attempt to resurrect the project.
Now, eight years after that Obama administration decision, Shimkus’ quest culminated on the House floor, where a comprehensive, bipartisan nuclear waste package passed Thursday, 340-72. It would give Yucca Mountain the needed policy jolt to start moving again.
Shimkus’ approaches over the years have ranged from biblical rage to statesmanlike diplomacy. But despite a Senate roadblock awaiting the bill, he’s pushed Yucca Mountain into the House spotlight.
“He has been all about Yucca, all of the time,” said Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon. “I share his cause, but I don’t think I can achieve his level of commitment and enthusiasm, because nobody has. He’s been terrific.”
Indeed, Shimkus was so determined to see his Yucca Mountain bill to the floor, Walden said, that he sent handwritten letters to the homes of House GOP leaders for seven straight days during a recess week to win their support.
No nuclear reactor operates within the boundaries of his district, but Exelon’s Clinton nuclear station is 30 miles from its northern reaches. Illinois has six nuclear power plants with 11 generating units — and about 10,497 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste, the most in the nation.
Those nuclear ties have also come with some significant campaign contributions from Exelon Corp., the Chicago-based company that operates more nuclear plants than any other single company. Since he first ran for office in 1991, Shimkus has received approximately $111,949 in donations from the utility to his individual campaign account and PACs associated with him, according to OpenSecrets.org.
A military veteran and former high school U.S. government history teacher, he says his Yucca defense is also driven by his advocacy for law and order. He was furious, he said, when he perceived that the Obama administration ignored the law — the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act in which Congress determined that Yucca Mountain should be the nation’s nuclear waste repository.
“To have insider politics, presidential politics break the law, that’s what really got me fired up … just the total disregard for the law by the executive branch,” Shimkus said in the interview.
Despite that designation, the Obama administration called the site unworkable in the face of local opposition powered in Washington by Reid. But even Republicans in the state and on the Hill long complained that radiological leaks at the site could contaminate water supplies and that moving the material to the site could expose citizens to radiation should an accident occur.
Shimkus’ anger about the decision would bubble to the surface during oversight hearings by the Energy and Commerce Committee and its environment subcommittee, which he chaired, a position he said he sought partially because of its oversight of the Yucca Mountain issue. His questioning of key Obama-era DOE officials was aggressive, to say the least.
One of those DOE officials, former Assistant Secretary of Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons, described those hearings “as the low point in my time of public service.”
“The most frustrating part was I was not able to even respond,” Lyons said. “It’s no fun to be yelled at without being able to respond. … He had the microphone and he could yell much louder than me.”
Shimkus said the intense questioning was warranted. The Obama administration objectively broke the letter of the law, he said, and he cited support for his view in the various federal court orders directing the spending of money appropriated by Congress to continue the Yucca Mountain licensing process.
“I think those tirades are, in biblical [terms], we would call it righteous anger,” said Shimkus, a bible study teacher and daily tweeter of biblical verses. “It’s unfortunate that you have to scream and holler to make your point.”
His approach has softened as he has taken on more responsibility as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee. He also acknowledges that with more Washington experience, he has learned how to better work with the other side of the aisle, as is evident in his successful bipartisan update to the Toxic Substances Control Act in the last Congress.
His willingness to work with Democrats helped produce the nuclear waste legislation that moved out of committee on a 49-4 vote. A central tenet of the legislation authorizes temporary sites to store nuclear waste consolidated from multiple plants, a policy identified as the preferred alternative to Yucca Mountain by the Obama administration.
“It’s not an easy issue,” said Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, the ranking member of the subcommittee. “It’s a tough issue, but he is driving an issue that he has embraced, and I respect that.”
The legislation softened from draft versions to maintain key state water and air quality permitting oversight in a nod to Democratic concerns. The bill would also provide financial incentives to Nevada.
Shimkus said he has tried to establish a productive dialogue with groups in the state. He has visited Reno twice to make his case, and he has spoken in front of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce annually for the past five years when they have visited Washington.
But to many in the state, Shimkus’ policy ambition interferes with their state’s rights, putting citizens’ health at risk. The fact that the bill would expand the capacity of the Yucca Mountain site has not helped matters.
“We are pretty united in Nevada against Yucca Mountain, certainly in southern Nevada,” said Democratic Rep. Dina Titus. “We got the chamber of commerce, we got the Nevada resort association, almost all of the elected officials, so he’s not a real welcomed person there.”
Titus said that during one of his trips to Nye County, where Yucca Mountain resides, he visited with pro-Yucca local officials.
“He’s not been playing fair with us, we believe,” she added.
That Nevada opposition extends to Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democrat Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto — both of whom have the ability to scuttle consideration of the bill on their side of the Capitol. And Heller will face a re-election challenge in November from Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen; opposition to Yucca will be a yardstick for most voters.
Shimkus said the House vote is part of the process, along with renewed interest from the Trump administration, in Yucca Mountain’s return. The administration’s backing could put pressure on the Senate to find some type of matching effort on nuclear waste.
“Getting people on record is an important thing to do,” Shimkus said.
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