WASHINGTON — Two members of Congress from Nevada are reserving seats on the tour that will take a group of lawmakers to Yucca Mountain next month, a visit its organizer hopes will spark new interest in the shuttered nuclear waste site.
Reps. Cresent Hardy and Mark Amodei, both Republicans, will join the April 9 excursion being assembled by Rep. John Shimkus, a House subcommittee chairman trying to revive the Yucca program. It was ended without any waste being placed at the site.
“I think it’s important to see and get a feel for the place,” Hardy said Wednesday. “I think just to see it and get a comfort zone of where it is so that if anything arises I can speak with knowledge rather than what my imagination is.”
Hardy, a House freshman who has never been to Yucca Mountain, represents Nye County, where the site is located. Residents there generally have favored the project as a potential economic boon, and Nye commissioners are asking to send a representative on the tour.
Amodei, who visited Yucca previously, “is going to try to make this trip because he thinks it’s important to have some Nevadans present with some depth on the issue when these folks from other states are walking around the site,” his spokesman Brian Baluta said.
Yucca Mountain once was the centerpiece of the government’s nuclear waste management effort, a multi-billion dollar Department of Energy program to develop an underground repository for highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste from U.S. weapons programs.
But the project was highly controversial within the state, drawing legal and political opposition from senior leaders who challenged it on environmental and safety grounds.
The Obama administration withdrew its support for Yucca Mountain in 2010, ending contracts and transferring almost all its federal employees to other posts. The site presently is restricted, including fencing near the mouth of a 25-foot wide exploratory tunnel that had been the focus of activity.
Shimkus, R-Ill., said Wednesday he first visited Yucca Mountain 14 years ago, near the peak of activity. His most recent visit was to an empty site in 2011.
“The first visit there were hundreds of jobs and a lot of revenue to the state of Nevada because of employment, and right now there is nothing,” he said in an interview. “It’s a dusty closed building and a tunnel that is closed. They just turned off the lights and walked away.”
Shimkus, chairman of the House environment and the economy subcommittee, predicted lawmakers making their first trip to the site will be struck by its remoteness 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. He said he also plans to emphasize that nuclear experiments have long been conducted at the adjoining Nevada National Security Site.
“Traveling there is very instructive for members who have never been out there,” he said. “It will be very eye-opening.”
An entourage has not yet been announced for the trip, which will take place on a week the House is not in session. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the environment and the economy subcommittee, will not be on the trip, an aide said.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said she will not be on the trip, contending “they are not inviting us.” Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., also said he does not plan to attend.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., has scheduled his annual tour of offshore oil rigs in Louisiana that same week, providing competition for the Yucca Mountain excursion.
Nevada officials who oppose the revival of the Yucca program are weighing how to respond to the tour.
Steve Frishman, a nuclear energy consultant, said state officials are considering whether to request a spot on the tour. Likewise, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not decided whether to send along a representative, according to his spokeswoman.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., “feels Yucca Mountain is a not a safe site – it never will be – and no amount of congressional visits will change that,” spokesman Neal Patel said. “At the end of the day, he believes those on the tour will come to the same conclusion.”