Nevada's powerful Republican senator is keeping close tabs on where presidential candidates weigh in on the contentious Yucca Mountain repository in the Silver State.
That's because Sen. Dean Heller is angling for a presidential nominee who, like himself, wants to make sure the project doesn't move forward.
One candidate who "dropped down" on Heller's list is his Republican Senate colleague, Marco Rubio of Florida, who on a campaign visit to the state earlier this month said the site -- about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas -- was chosen long ago and money had already been invested there, so the project should move forward unless someone has a better idea.
"I'll still keep an open mind -- we don't need to agree 100 percent of the time," Heller said during an interview yesterday. "But that's a chunk, that's a huge chunk, Yucca Mountain and the position that I have, so it'd be difficult for me to get to that position."
Not surprisingly, likely Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's comment that a nuclear waste site in Nevada is unlikely to move forward amid such stiff state opposition appealed to Heller.
"That's a big plus in my book," the senator said.
Yet Heller said he remains "neutral" on presidential contenders for now. "I have a very open mind at this point," he said.
Just how much play the project ultimately gets during the presidential race, Heller said, will depend on what type of elections are held in Nevada.
The issue will receive more attention in the general election than it will in the primaries, Heller predicted.
"I just think it's the demographics, how the primary plays, perhaps northern Nevada, rural Nevada seem to have a higher turnout for ... Republican primaries," he said.
The spotlight on Yucca will also shine brighter if the state Legislature changes Nevada's nominating contests from a caucus to a primary, he said. Nevada's Republican-controlled Legislature is mulling whether to ditch the state's caucus system for primaries. Whereas caucuses are arranged by the state or political parties, primaries are a direct, statewide process of selecting candidates and delegates, and are often seen as having a bigger and more diverse electorate.
Nevada is fourth in the GOP presidential lineup -- with a tentative date for Feb. 23 -- following Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"I believe Yucca Mountain will have a much bigger role in the Republican nomination process if there's a primary," Heller said.
Shimkus 'disappointed' with Senate appropriators
But bigger questions about funding and authorizing language needed to advance Yucca Mountain are already being tackled on Capitol Hill.
Just yesterday, Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) left out funding for the Nevada repository in an appropriations bill because he hopes to tackle the issue during the amendments process. Alexander has been vocal in his support of the project but is not as vehement as his counterparts in the House (E&ENews PM, May 19).
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), one of the loudest supporters of Yucca Mountain, called Alexander's move disappointing.
Shimkus said during an interview that he's hopeful to secure funds to complete the licensing of Yucca Mountain and insisted the repository must be a part of any nuclear waste solution that moves forward.
He also welcomed a chance for the upper chamber to vote on Yucca. The congressman has expressed hope that Senate Democrats will be more willing to support the project following the looming departure of Senate Minority Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who's made killing the project a primary goal during his political career.
"It's about time the senators had to either address the issues of their states, whether that's defense waste or spent nuclear fuel, and be part of the debate," Shimkus said. "We're not moving interim storage without any assurance that Yucca is moving forward. That's pretty clear."
But even after acknowledging there is bipartisan support for Yucca Mountain, Heller said he's looking forward to voting against the project.
"There is Democratic support and Republican support for Yucca right now. Our job is to take the president at his word that this project is dead, and I believe to this day it is," Heller said. "Hopefully we can get a Republican [presidential] nominee that's in opposition to Yucca."
Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.
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