Photo By David Robert Harry Reid says that if he had to choose between nuclear and coal, he’d take nuclear.

For his entire 24-year congressional career, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has been trying to stop the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nye County.

Now, with coal-fired power plants dropping like flies, Reid says he can live with nuclear power, even though it will add pressure for the opening of the Yucca facility.

“If I have a choice between coal and nuclear, it’s an easy choice to make,” Reid said.

Reid says he prefers renewable alternatives to coal rather than nuclear, and he’s skeptical of federal subsidies for the nuclear power industry. But between coal and nuclear, his choice is nuclear.

All over the nation, plans for coal-fired plants are being denied, suspended or cancelled. Reid has said he will use his influence in the Senate to halt plans for three more coal-fired plants in eastern Nevada, though he didn’t get his anti-coal language approvd in the latest spending bill.

Earlier this month, he tried to enact an amendment increasing the clean air standards for Great Basin National Park, also in eastern Nevada, effectively barring two of the proposed coal-fired plants from the region. (Reid was attempting to amend an omnibus measure containing a dozen huge appropriations measures for federal programs. Legislative leaders are under growing criticism in the nation’s capital for abuse of omnibus measures.)

By opposing coal, is Reid driving the United States to nuclear and more nuclear waste?

“I don’t know about that, but the situation we have is this—we have to get away from fossil fuel,” he said. “We’re using 21 million barrels of oil a day, importing almost 70 percent of that. We can’t produce our way out of the problems we have. We do not have clean coal technology yet. We’re living in a world where global warming is here—not taking place [in the future], it’s here.”

Reid said the global warming problem has accelerated the schedule on which policymakers had been operating because “in 10 years, we’re going to have the world change before our eyes. There’ll be islands that will be covered with water. There will be farming in various parts of our country and other parts of the world … depleted significantly. So we have to do something about this. And for someone to think it’s going to be good for America, good for Nevada to build another coal-fired generating complex, is ridiculous.”

In a press kit distributed nationwide in reaction to the fading fortunes of coal, the coal industry last week argued that there is a 250-year supply of coal in the United States.

While the linkage between the vicissitudes of coal power and Yucca Mountain has not gotten a lot of attention in the popular media, it is definitely there in the environmental, nuclear industry, and financial services media. A Google search for the phrases coal-fired power plants and Yucca Mountain in tandem draws 17,700 hits.

Although environmentalists, like Reid, want the decline in coal-fired plants to mean a surge in renewable energy development and research funding in Congress, the nuclear power lobby has been pouncing on the shift to pressure lawmakers to revive nuclear power.

Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, concedes the environmental lobby may not be able to compete with the political punch of the nuclear power lobby (“Do the math,” he says), but he hopes that what he sees as the inherent weaknesses in nuclear power and strengths of renewables will determine the outcome: “And then there’s all the renewables that still have not been exploited. And then waiting out there on the wings is this bloated, hugely expensive, heavily subsidized, politically unpopular corporate giveaway which is nuclear power.”

He calls a choice between coal and nuclear a “false choice.”

“Even in spite of all the money that they’ve poured into these campaigns, the nuclear power industry, and in spite of the armies of lobbyists that they have there, they’re still not getting anywhere.” Fulkerson said. “And why is that? Well, it’s because nuclear power is such a stupid source of energy, because it is so hugely expensive, and because people don’t like it—for good reason.”

Kiplinger Letter associate editor Jim Ostroff wrote this month, “Nuclear power is on the verge of a boom. Look for about 30 new nuclear power plants to be built over the next 20 years, bringing the total in operation in the United States by 2025 to roughly 140. Together, they’ll supply one-fourth of U.S. electricity. About a fifth of current U.S. electricity needs are met with power provided by nuclear plants. But that share will fall before it rises because total U.S. power needs and supplies from nonnuclear sources will grow more swiftly than nuclear in the short term.”

Ostroff writes of Yucca: “One remaining obstacle is waste disposal, but it won’t derail nuclear’s resurgence. Plant operators say they have plenty of space to store waste on-site as politicians drag their feet on approving a depository for spent fuel in Yucca Mountain, Nev. We still expect that to be OK’d within a decade, in any case.”

Reid disputes that last point, repeating what has become his mantra, “Yucca Mountain’s not going to happen.”

“The nuclear power generating facilities, as we speak, are storing their waste on site,” he said.

However, Reid’s certainty that the Yucca dump is dead is dependent almost entirely on his own continued tenure in the Senate. If reelection defeat or fate removed him from the picture, that picture would likely change quickly. No one expects the remaining four members of the Nevada congressional delegation to be able to hold the line.

“I think the consequences would be devastating if we were to lose Harry Reid,” Fulkerson said.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...