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Harry Reid: ‘If You’re Pessimistic, You’re Never Disappointed’

U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of NevadaDespite his pessimism, former U.S. Senate Democratic Leader, Harry Reid, did lead the generation-long congressional resistance to the national high-level radioactive waste dump scheme targeted at his home state of Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Just retired at the end of 2016, after 34 years in Congress, Reid is featured in a profile in the New York Times Magazine entitled "Harry Reid Has a Few Words for Washington."

The article, by Mark Leibovich, reports:

Reid, who is 79, does not have long to live. I hate to be so abrupt about this, but Reid probably would not mind. In May, he went in for a colonoscopy, the results of which caused concern among his doctors. This led to an M.R.I. that turned up a lesion on Reid’s pancreas: cancer. Reid’s subdued and slightly cold manner, and aggressive anticharisma, have always made him an admirably blunt assessor of situations, including, now, his own: “As soon as you discover you have something on your pancreas, you’re dead.”

Although the article doesn't mention the Yucca dump fight, it was a high priority in Reid's long, combined U.S. House and Senate tenure. Simply, when the nuclear establishment in industry and government passed the "Screw Nevada" bill in 1987, against the state's and its congressional delegation's will -- singling out Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the only site in the country to be further considered for the country's high-level radioactive waste dump -- they screwed with the wrong rookie Senator. Reid then devoted the rest of his career to blocking the dump -- tenaciously, skillfully, and successfully so -- until his retirement on Jan. 3, 2017.

Of course, Reid didn't accomplish this singlehandedly, as inviting as is the image of the Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike. From his U.S. Senate colleague, Democrat and former Nevada governor, Richard Bryan in the 1990s (who still serves as chair, on the state legislative commission opposing the dump), to a number of Republican U.S. Senators from Nevada, Reid had a lot of help in the U.S. Senate. This included many non-Nevada allies as well, included now retired U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.

Bipartisan U.S. House of Reprsentatives delegations from Nevada over decades (with a small number of exceptions, nearly unanimously opposed to the Yucca dump), helped a lot as well. So too did non-Nevada allies, like Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, who now serves as a U.S. Senator.

U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, both Democrats from Nevada -- and both endorsed by a still very engaged Harry Reid -- are helping to lead the continuation of this bipartisan tradition, as is Nevada Democrat Dina Titus in the U.S. House.

Essential help has also come from bipartisan governors from Nevada, state legislatures, attorneys general, etc., carrying out the will of the vast majority of Nevadans to block the dump. After all, Nevada already "took one for the team" -- it bore the brunt of nuclear weapons testing fallout from the Nevada Test Site, now renamed the Nevada National Security Site.

And the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects has moved mountains, defending the state against the Yucca dump.

Coming off the U.S. Senate floor on July 9, 2002 to a waiting group of environmental supporters, Reid told them that the Yucca vote in the Senate was "like a bar fight -- sometimes, you just have to take it out back."

He would know -- Reid had been a boxer, from a hard scrabble mining town in southern Nevada, Searchlight.

The U.S. Senate had just voted, 60 to 39, to override the governor of Nevada's veto of the Yucca dump (Kenny Guinn, a Republican), and ram it down the state's throat regardless. Reid led the U.S. Senate resistance, allied with those assembled environmental groups -- including NIRS (Nuclear Information and Resource Service), Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG (U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which later spun off Environment America), NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), and many others. 39 votes against was the best our side had ever done in a U.S. Senate vote on the Yucca dump issue.

Although we had lost the battle, we eventually won the war. The 39 votes against was good enough to stop the dump, in fact. Combined with a major court victory two years to the day later (July 9, 2004), it slowed the Yucca dump enough, to allow Barack Obama to be elected president in November 2008.

When Obama took the oath as president, Yucca dump funding was soon zeroed out. Obama's DOE even moved to withdraw the Yucca dump license application, and terminate the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing proceeding. Reid's revenge for the "Screw Nevada" bill debacle had reached its zenith.

Of course, Reid's annual starving the beast of funding was essential too. There were years in the George W. Bush administration when the U.S. Department of Energy sought $2.5 billion (yes, with a B!), per year, at the Yucca dump. Reid whittled that down significantly in his role as Assistant Democratic Leader, and later, Democratic Leader in the U.S. Senate. When the Dems took the majority, Reid became U.S. Senate Majority Leader, controlling the Senate floor. He made sure Yucca funding legislation never made it there, thus effectively zeroing out its budget entirely.

The nuclear establishment advocates for turning Nevada into the country's radioactive waste dump had never foreseen Las Vegas growing into such a large city -- with the vast majority of the population not only in the state's largest city, but also state-wide, opposing the dump -- over the years and decades, nor Harry Reid becoming U.S. Senate Majority Leader.

But as Alfred Meyer, a PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility) national board member, puts its, the politics are not in the opposition to the Yucca dump. The politics were in its singling out in the first place.

In the "Screw Nevada" bill way back in 1987. Yucca is not only scientifically unsuitable (it would leak massively if radioactive waste were ever buried there). It also fails many other basic criteria, including: legality (the Western Shoshone Indian Nation owns the land, via the "peace and friendship" Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863); environmental justice; consent-based siting; intergenerational equity and justice (EPA's Yucca standards would allow 15 millirem per year exposures from the leaking Yucca dump to nearby residents for the first 10,000 years, but after that, would allow a 23-fold increase!); regional equity (90% of the commercial atomic reactors, and their high-level radioactive waste,  in the U.S. is in the eastern half of the country -- 75% east of the Mississippi -- and yet the Southwest is targeted for the dumps, time and time again); etc.

Reid also played a key role in stopping the centralized interim storage facility (CISF, in today's nomenclature), or monitored retrievable storage site (MRS, what it was called a decade or two ago), for 40,000 metric tons of irradiated nuclear fuel, targeted at the tiny (125-adult members) Skull Valley Goshutes Indian Reservation, in West Utah. Specifically, Reid, and Nevada's Republican U.S. Senator at the time, John Ensign, joined forces with two Republican U.S. Senators in Utah -- Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett -- and, working with the Republican Mormon political establishment in Utah, as well as a broad environmental coalition, including SUWA (the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance), as well as Skull Valley Goshutes traditionals like Margene Bullcreek and Sammy Blackbear, created the first federal wilderness area in Utah in a generation. The Cedar Mountains Federal Wilderness Area then surrounded the Skull Valley Goshutes reservation, preventing train tracks from being laid, blocking the import of 4,000 high-level radioactive waste casks weighing well over 100 tons each.

To learn more about the blocked Private Fuel Storage, LLC, see the NIRS (Nuclear Information and Resource Service) website section devoted to the Skull Valley Goshutes CISF struggle.

Even though Reid has devoted his career to stopping the Yucca dump, located on Western Shoshone Indian land in Nevada, he is far from perfect. He is credited by Western Shoshone traditionals as leading the effort to try to complete the stealing of their land, against their will, through unwanted monetary compensation. (The land is not for sale.) More than a decade ago, Reid shephered legislation through Congress that would pay a mere $30,000 to each individual Western Shoshone person, in exchange for extinguishment of title to millions of acres of land, throughout most of Nevada, and portions of California, Idaho, and Utah. Traditionals refused the money, and instead insisted that the terms of the "peace and friendship" Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863 be honored by the United States, and its leadership, including U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

To learn more about Western Shoshone Indian treaty rights at Yucca Mountain (Yucca is called "Serpent Swimming Westward" in the Western Shoshone language), and beyond, see the Native Community Action Council website.

And even though Sen. Reid played the lead role in the creation of beloved federal wilderness areas (such as Black Rock Desert Wilderness), as well as national monuments (such as the Basin and Range National Monument) in Nevada, he has also long supported large-scale, industrial gold mining in Nevada. For years, this has involved the pulverization of entire mountains, and the cyanide-bath leaching of the resultant dust, to extract microscopic bits and pieces of gold. This has resulted in disastrous toxic contamination of large areas of land and precious groundwater.