Yucca Mountain: Going through the motions

Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn was as animated as I've ever seen him when he accused U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and the Energy Department (DOE) of bad faith at a Sept. 5 public hearing on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump.

Leading off the hearing, Guinn said DOE had decided to "gather public comment on scientific evidence that is not complete and has not been made public," a decision he described as "premature and grossly irresponsible."

Guinn was joined by the entire Nevada congressional delegation Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign and representatives Jim Gibbons and Shelley Berkley in a bipartisan show of opposition to the proposed nuclear dump. But neither their opinions, nor ours, make any difference because Abraham already knows that he'll recommend approval of the Yucca Mountain site to President Bush later this year.

If there was any doubt about Abraham's decision, or if he was really considering both sides of the issue, he would have put in an appearance at the Las Vegas hearing or made himself available via satellite TV from Washington, as did our congressional delegation. But the secretary was nowhere in sight; instead, he sent a flunky to take the heat from an angry crowd at a DOE building on the outskirts of Las Vegas. I watched and listened to part of the proceedings at the Legislative Building in Carson City, and was proud of our elected officials as they lambasted the predetermined outcome of the hearing.

Gov. Guinn said the nuclear storage issue "is paramount to the health and safety of every Nevadan, and every American whose home, school or place of business sits along the proposed paths that the deadliest substance on earth" will travel. "We in Nevada will not stand for it," Guinn declared.

"I don't have to remind anyone here today that it was not long ago that Nevadans and all Americans were assured that nuclear testing was safe," the governor continued. "Since that time, the DOE admitted that the aftermath of testing of the hydrogen bomb at Yucca Flats caused innocent Americans to die, and that cancer benefits should be paid to the families of dozens of men and women who were contaminated by the fallout from nuclear testing."

And then, his voice rising in anger, Guinn fired a political warning shot: "And just yesterday (Sept. 4) we learned for the first time that germ warfare testing imagine, germ warfare testing was conducted at that same test site without any knowledge whatsoever by our own congressional delegation or my office. With a track record like this, it's no wonder the Department of Energy lacks credibility . . ." Does it ever! Later, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman vowed to personally arrest the driver of the first DOE truck that tries to bring nuclear waste through Vegas in violation of a new city ordinance.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate' deputy majority leader, echoed Guinn and Goodman by calling the Las Vegas hearing premature and unfair. "The books have been cooked," Reid charged. "This (hearing) doesn't pass the smell test." A day later, Reid asked President Bush to order Secretary Abraham to attend the next public hearings in the Amargosa Valley - the populated area nearest Yucca Mountain - and at Pahrump.

But there was virtually no chance that Abraham, an energy neophyte kicked out of the Senate last year by Michigan voters, would attend because his mind was already made up. Full of Washington arrogance, Abraham knows what he knows that Nevada is a remote desert state populated by relatively few actual voters. It's a political decision, as it has been ever since Congress passed the "Screw Nevada" bill in 1987, designating Yucca Mountain as the only site to be studied as the nation's repository for more than 77,000 tons of deadly radioactive waste. All the rest of this stuff, the hearings and the studies, is pure window dressing and DOE is merely going through the motions.

If there's any doubt about the outcome of this flawed process, I'll cite an Aug. 28 letter that I received from Lake H. Barrett, DOE's acting director of civilian radioactive waste management, who attended the Vegas hearing. Here's what Barrett wrote: "If the Secretary determines that the scientific evaluation of the site indicates that the site is suitable for development of a repository, he may then submit a recommendation for site development to the President. If the President accepts the Secretary's POSITIVE RECOMMENDATION (my emphasis), he would recommend the site as qualified . . ." Make no mistake about it, the recommendation will be positive no matter what Nevadans, including our elected officials, say about it. And that's that!

Our only hope to head off this potentially lethal project is for federal courts to uphold State Engineer Mike TurnipseedOs decision to deny DOE the water it needs to operate the repository, which is highly unlikely, or for Reid and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to team-up to block the proposal in the Senate. While campaigning in Las Vegas last fall, Daschle said the Yucca Mountain project is dead "as long as we're the majority." We'll know whether that's true by the end of the year.

In the end, President Bush will do whatever Vice President Dick Cheney tells him to do, and Cheney loves nuclear energy. Meanwhile, DOE pushes on in its inexorable drive to create the $60 billion Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, going through the motions to justify a decision that has already been made. So much for states' rights.


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