The presidential election may offer hope for a resurgence of interest in nuclear energy. And if a Republican wins the White House, it's more likely that the centerpiece of that effort, a controversial nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, will move forward.
Republicans stand for what they call the "law of the land," referring to the fact that Congress chose Yucca Mountain to be the nation's nuclear waste dump, and that has not changed despite President Obama's and congressional Democrats' success in upending the project and focusing instead on wind and solar power.
But even with a president who favors nuclear energy, it will still prove difficult to build the site to take radioactive waste from nearly 100 power plants.
Nuclear power is one of the cleanest forms of electricity, yet the question of what to do with waste continues to fester. Many people see Yucca Mountain as the answer, but opponents say it's unsafe. But both sides agree that building more nuclear plants hinges on waste disposal.
It pits the administration against lawmakers and exposes a rift between the pro-nuke and anti-nuke wings of the environmental movement.
A big barrier to the nuclear option is price. Ben Zycher, senior energy fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said new nuclear reactors cost far too much, especially since natural gas is so cheap. That could sideline nuclear energy and Yucca Mountain this election year.
Yucca Mountain's main adversary, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, but Zycher said other Nevada officials will step into the breach. "It may be a case without Reid in the Senate the path would be eased, but that's not particularly obvious," he said.
David McIntyre, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, charged with licensing the dump, agrees, saying it "would be immensely difficult" to start back up after so many years of administration stalling.
And Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton is "not going to endorse it," Zycher said.
Litigation and 2016
Rod McCullum, the Nuclear Energy Institute's director of used fuel issues, calls managing nuclear waste the "most technically simple, but politically complicated things we do."
It might arise in the presidential election because President Obama has stalled longstanding nuclear waste policy, defying Congress, many states and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which designates Yucca Mountain as America's long-term nuclear waste repository.
Obama's efforts to hamstring Yucca during his first term helped keep Reid loyal. But both are leaving Washington, and federal courts have ruled that the administration could not kill the Yucca project without congressional consent and while continuing to collect money from utilities and states to build it.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013 dealt a blow to the administration by ordering the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete its work on licensing the facility, which it recently did despite Reid having choked off the commission's funding. McCullum said the commission has been "eeking" along.
NRC spokesman David McIntyre said the commission is managing to do as the court asked with reserve funding, but not much else.
The Department of Energy, which manages Yucca, has refused to participate, he said, even though the commission has given the site a clean bill of health for long-term storage.
The commission will complete a supplemental environmental review in the spring declaring the site safe for the environment, McIntyre said. After that, it will prepare for litigation by publishing data supporting the case that Yucca is safe. Nevada will present over 200 briefs countering that opinion, and a hearing will determine if or when the site goes ahead.
Once the commission finishes its work in September, the process will be right back where it was before Obama upended it in 2010. The commission had been preparing for the judicial process when the president ordered the Energy Department to withdraw the license.
"Settling those contentions is the road to consent ... [and] an opportunity for those parties to come together," including Reid's state of Nevada, McCullum said. Residents and officials in Nye County, which includes Yucca Mountain, support construction of the dump and the jobs it would create.
McCullum said scientific evidence will make it clear this fall that Yucca Mountain is safe and arguments are wrong, presenting candidates with the chance to press the issue and contrast themselves with a president who has blocked progress.
Reid has questions
Reid seems to be worried. In a letter to the regulator, the Senate minority leader asked if a key argument in his state's case against the facility was considered in a supplemental environmental review. The review, which is still open for comment, shows Yucca Mountain to be safe.
"This issue is beyond the scope of the limited supplemental environmental review that is under way," NRC said in its response dated last month. The issue Reid raised is one that Nevada raised with the NRC years ago, showing that without metal shields made from expensive titanium, the natural ground water within the mountain would erode the containers and pose environmental hazards.
The agency says the "public has been afforded the opportunity to challenge the scope of the environmental review by raising contentions in the adjudication before the agency's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board," and "[s]everal contentions pertaining to the proposed drip shields have been admitted for litigation."
Those contentions will be part of the public record to be taken up through the agency's judicial appeal process after the scientific data backing them is compiled for review in the fall, McIntyre said.
Reid's office did not respond to requests for comment.
GOP gearing up
Many Republicans on Capitol Hill opposed Obama's decision to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain after the government had collected tens of billions of dollars to build it over three decades.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee's nuclear subcommittee, believes the administration's action contravenes the law, and the facility must be built to keep electricity affordable and reliable.
"Sen. Capito believes that work on Yucca Mountain should move forward because having a secure, central location to hold nuclear waste is critical to allowing nuclear power to continue to provide electricity for millions of Americans," her spokeswoman Amy Graham said.
Environmental Committee chief Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., an outspoken critic of the president's climate change agenda, has a similar view.
"Yucca is the law of the land. Taxpayers and electricity consumers have invested $15 billion in Yucca and the NRC's technical staff review has concluded that it would meet the regulations and be safe for a million years," said the committee chief's spokeswoman Kristina Baum.
"The next step is to conduct a hearing on all the contentions that have been filed.‎ It's time for NRC to finish its statutorily-mandated review," she added.
Many Republican candidates also say Yucca Mountain must go ahead, noting the time and money already spent on it.
"America will transform the world economy with energy independence and I support an all-of-the-above energy strategy to get there," GOP presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told the Washington Examiner.
"We should have been developing more nuclear power plants over the past 35 years like they've done in Europe and other continents."
A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., points out that the senator has said Yucca's development is law and should be built as a matter of public safety.
Democrats and Republicans also see the need for innovation and new nuclear reactors that produce less waste. In its latest omnibus spending package, Congress gave the Department of Energy $30 million to look for an interim storage site, which the agency began doing last month.
Still, Republicans are not being deflected by this. "Yucca Mountain is the place that's gotten the money, and it was chosen years ago," Rubio told a reporter in South Carolina last year. "So unless someone can identify a better project, that's the one we should move forward on."
Although Clinton would probably oppose further nuclear energy development and Yucca, some prominent figures among environmental activists have become advocates for nuclear energy as a better option than wind and solar.
Patrick Moore, co-founder of the environmental group Greenpeace, said most green groups want to kill nuclear power because of a "lie" that solar and wind are more competitive, despite nuclear power being a zero-emission source of electricity.
"What amazes me is the so-called 'green' movement is able to maintain this powerful anti-nuclear energy position in the face of their being the leading proponents of reducing fossil fuel consumption," he told the Washington Examiner. "It's just such a complete lie that wind and solar are ever going to be even close to on a par with nuclear and coal."
Moore is one of a growing number of environmental activists who have jumped ship from the mainstream greens over nukes.
He said green opposition is eroding America's competitive edge. "The U.S. has been the leader in the technology, but it has fallen behind now," he said. There has been movement on a handful of plants that are nearing completion in the states, but that construction spurt has ended and the momentum lost, Moore said.
He blames the federal government for "not doing anything to make it happen," adding, "If you look at China, Russia and India, there you have leadership from the central government. It's not private companies that are leading it."
Many of the new plants in the U.S. are being built in the Southeast, and the large utility Southern Company is one of the principal project developers.
Tom Fanning, its chief executive, said last month that the reason nuclear remains part of the region's energy strategy is because it provides affordable and reliable power. Fanning said solar and wind can't do it all, and nuclear must be a part of the energy mix with coal and natural gas.
"What they don't talk about is a good nuclear plant will operate for 80 years, whereas a good solar panel has a hard time making it past 10," Moore said. "A good wind turbine is no more than 20-25 years.
"That makes a big difference in terms of the costs. Because once you pay the nuclear plants' capital cost off, it's very cheap energy from then on — another 60 years or so," he said.
Many, including the administration, are beginning to acknowledge that any solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels has to include nuclear energy, especially after last month's non-binding deal on reducing emissions made in Paris among nearly 200 nations.
Most scientists blame greenhouse gas emissions for causing global warming, which the Paris deal sought to combat. Moore said large emitters such as China, and other nations, have given no guarantee they will do anything to lower greenhouse gases. But if the reductions are to be taken seriously, nuclear has to be part of it.
Countries are preparing to increase their complement of reactors, while also using fossil fuels and building out solar and wind.
"On a global basis, nuclear has a very bright future," Moore said. "China has the intention to build 100 nuclear plants between now and 2030 or so, and that will put them ahead of the U.S. in the number of plants and the amount of energy they are producing with nuclear."