Reece Keener: Nevada’s ace in the hole
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Reece Keener: Nevada’s ace in the hole

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Along with the world, over the past two months the United States has been carpet-bombed by the novel coronavirus. It has inflicted untold anxiety, pain, death and biblical scale, human suffering. This is but the first wave of the virus’ insidious toll. The still developing second wave is the impending economic devastation in the form of rampant unemployment, swooning consumer confidence, poverty, desperation and unsustainable levels of federal deficit spending wrought by the shutdown.

With Nevada’s tourism-centric economy, we will have seemingly insurmountable challenges recovering in a post coronavirus world. Our state’s magnificent mega resorts have now been eerily shuttered for weeks, leaving tens of thousands of workers sidelined with waning hope of return to their jobs. Previously, McCarren International Airport was one of the country’s busiest hubs, buzzing with activity. It is now, and will likely remain for some time a hollow shadow of its former glory — a stark contrast to the visitation jackpot that was forecasted for the Las Vegas Raiders’ debut season.

The private sector damage is immediate, as evidenced by Nevada’s nation-leading unemployment filings. USA Today spotlights Nevada as having the “sharpest projected COVID-19 job loss” logging in at an estimated employment decline of 9.8%. This should come as no surprise, as “payrolls in leisure and hospitality make up a quarter of all jobs, more than twice the US average” (IHS Markit). This unemployment loss doesn’t include the thousands of construction jobs in southern Nevada that have been fueled by leisure and travel sector projects like the $2 billion dollar Allegiant Stadium.

Elko is an anomaly, and we are uniquely positioned as the gold mining capital of North America to prosper amid this financial storm, just like we did during the Great Recession. Gold prices are rising as the “flight to safety” is in play, and turbocharged federal deficit spending will likely weaken the dollar which historically exerts upward pressure on the yellow metal’s price.

However, the economic damage to the public sector is a slow-motion train wreck. Our entire government sector at the state, county, city, school and university levels are going to experience an apocalyptic fiscal impact. Just last week Nevada Governor Sisolak asked state agencies to brace for nearly $700 million dollars in budget cuts. As a citizen and elected official, I fear that this is only the beginning. We are staring into the abyss.

There are likely to be federal dollars coming our way that will help us limp through the current fiscal year ending June 30. However, we now have a long-term, pandemic-induced travel phobia that is predicted to have lasting effects. People are afraid to congregate in crowded airplanes, conventions, showrooms, stadiums and gaming floors. Sure, visitors will slowly begin to return to the Silver State in time, but in numbers vastly smaller than before. It is highly probable that it will take years to rebuild the visitations to pre COVID-19 levels as we grapple with the “new normal” of social distancing.

Nevada’s economy has a diversification problem, it is overly dependent on tourism. We need new industries and new sources of revenues, and quickly. Our state has a forgotten diversification option which has been blocked and maligned for the past 30 plus years. A revenue source which could be leveraged and tapped into quickly. Now is the time for our elected officials to re-examine the Yucca Mountain Repository.

Spent nuclear fuels can be stored safely and securely at the Yucca site. There is pent-up demand for this facility to open, as used fuel has been stockpiled in unsafe storage conditions for years at reactor sites around the US. Yucca could provide Nevada with the windfall it needs to help plug the revenue shortfalls that are at our doorstep. It can provide sustainable revenues and high wage jobs for decades to come: engineering, scientific, transportation, construction, to name a few. This would also be an ideal site for a spent fuel reprocessing facility, as there are currently none in the US.

We are living in uncertain times that require bold and practical solutions. This is the time for Nevadans to reconsider the Yucca Mountain facility and harvest the significant economic benefits that it will bring to our financially distressed state. I encourage our senior elected leaders at federal, state and local levels to consider this powerful resource that can provide a viable way forward during these fiscally dark and challenging times.

Reece Keener is mayor of Elko

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