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April 19, 2014

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Gibbons seen undermining a nuke-free Yucca

It was not one of Gov. Jim Gibbons' friendlier meetings.

Earlier this month in Gibbons' office, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Bob Loux, the state's Yucca Mountain watchdog, strongly pushed the governor and his key aides to stop the U.S. Energy Department from using the state's water for drilling at the high-level nuclear waste project.

The advice to Gibbons was unanimous: It's time to get tough with the feds. Don't give the Energy Department any chance to collect new data that could bolster its collapsing case to make Yucca Mountain the nation's nuclear waste dump.

But Gibbons, reminding those at the meeting that he's a geologist and a lawyer, rejected the concerns.

This week he continued down that path by encouraging and publicly supporting a move by State Engineer Tracy Taylor to allow the Energy Department to continue using the water for a month longer. Although Gibbons has said he was following Taylor's recommendation, sources said it was clear that Gibbons was calling the shots on the water decision.

That move was coupled with the Republican governor's replacement of Michon Mackedon, one of the most experienced and fiercest Yucca Mountain opponents on the Nevada Nuclear Projects Commission, with Nye County Commissioner Joni Eastley, a well-known Yucca Mountain advocate. Late Wednesday, after Democrats and the media began pointing out her pro-dump position, the appointment was rescinded.

In a statement, Gibbons took political spin to a new level by trying to distance himself from the flap over the appointment - by conveniently neglecting to mention that he had made the appointment in the first place.

"This position on the Nuclear Project Commission requires a representative who shares the primary sentiment of Nevada's residents and my administration's views on the Yucca Mountain project," the governor's statement said.

That was as true when Gibbons appointed Eastley, Yucca critics noted, as when he retreated amid growing controversy.

Gibbons insists that he remains steadfastly against the dump. But his actions this week, seemingly contrary to Nevada's quarter-century battle to block the repository, shocked leading Yucca Mountain opponents, giving them reason to question the governor's resolve in the epic fight.

"This demonstrates to me that he either doesn't know what he's doing or he's reversed his position," Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said Wednesday. "Either way it's unacceptable.

"What is this man thinking?" Berkley added. "The one thing that has saved Nevada all of these years is that we speak with one voice, no matter what party we belong to. For Jim Gibbons to break ranks at this very sensitive time is dangerous to the state of Nevada and its citizens."

Neither Gibbons nor his aides have offered public explanations for the governor's perplexing moves. In particular, they have not explained how giving federal authorities more time to build a case for Yucca Mountain or appointing a Yucca advocate to the nuclear projects board could possibly be interpreted as being in line with the state's opposition to the plan.

Mackedon, who lives in Fallon, said Gibbons' actions, including the abrupt way in which he replaced her with a Yucca Mountain proponent, caused her to worry about his loyalty to the fight.

"It's raising concerns in my mind about what his end game might be," she said. "He's sending out mixed signals."

Mackedon, who served through previous Democratic and Republican administrations, was the last original member of the Nuclear Projects Commission, created by then-Gov. Richard Bryan in 1985 to help the state challenge a Yucca Mountain repository.

Bryan, who now heads the commission, said he received calls Wednesday from people worried that Gibbons' actions have made it appear that the state was softening its stance against the dump.

"These two recent developments have not been helpful," Bryan said, adding that he did not understand the rationale for allowing the Energy Department continued access to the state's water.

On Tuesday, after Gibbons publicly endorsed the decision to let the water flow to the Energy Department, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blasted the move, calling it a blow to the fight and the "biggest gift" the department has received since he's been in Washington.

Although Gibbons backtracked on the Eastley appointment, his aides Wednesday stood firm on the water issue.

On June 1 Taylor had issued a cease-and-desist order prohibiting the Energy Department from using the state's water to cool drill bits used to bore soil sample holes near Yucca Mountain. Eleven days later, Taylor lifted the order, and with this week's letter provided a 30-day extension for the water use.

"If the state engineer felt that he could legally turn off the water today, the governor would support that 100 percent," press secretary Melissa Subbotin said.

The decision to allow the Energy Department to continue using the water, Subbotin said, was a "collaborative" effort made with the help of legal advice.

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