By any definition, it was political rape last Tuesday when the U.S. Senate voted 60-39 to build a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain only 90 miles from Las Vegas, the nation's fastest-growing city.
Because no matter how many times we said "No!" President Bush, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, congressional Republicans and their wealthy allies were going to stick it to us -- more than 77,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste, that is. And now, our only hope is in the federal courts.
In case you doubted whether this was a partisan issue, Republicans favored the Yucca Mountain dump 45-3 while Democrats (including "independent" Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who might as well be a Democrat) opposed it by a margin of 36-15. The only GOP senators who supported Nevada were mavericks Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and our own John Ensign, who was gallant in defeat. So much for Bush's "sound science." Remember that whopper during the 2000 election campaign?
Sen. Robert Bennett, a Republican from neighboring Utah, spoke for a cynical majority when he said that it would be better if the nuclear waste passed through Utah, rather than to remain there. That was after Secretary Abraham told him and fellow Republican Orrin Hatch that the Energy Department wouldn't approve a nuclear waste dump sought by Utah's Goshute Tribe.
Idaho's GOP senators, Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, who want to get rid of nuclear waste at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Lab, joined Bennett and Hatch, and the deal was done. Thanks a lot, neighbors.
Not even Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, (D-S.D., and his deputy, Nevada's Harry Reid, who led the spirited opposition, could head off this political mugging. Daschle, who promised to block the Yucca Mountain dump during the 2000 campaign, later discovered that he was powerless to prevent the toxic measure from coming up for a vote. The unprecedented legislation had been written so as to take control away from the majority leader and override Senate rules. And so they screwed Nevada, which was the plan all along.
After Tuesday's vote, Reid, Ensign, Gov. Kenny Guinn and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman vowed to fight on in the courts. "Nevada's arguments will be heard by impartial judges," Guinn said. "Now ... the DOE will finally be held accountable for its many imprudent and unsound decisions, and we are highly confident that Nevada will prevail."
But I could have done without the governor's tepid defense of President Bush. Although Guinn disagreed with the president's conclusions, he told the Associated Press that "Bush believes in his own mind that he really is basing the decision (to build Yucca Mountain) on the best science." Baloney!
This was a purely political decision based on the fact that Nevada is a small Western state with only four (five in 2004) electoral votes. Those five electoral votes could make a difference when the president seeks reelection in 2004, however, and I plan to support any Democrat who isn't named Hillary Clinton or Al Gore.
Reid and Ensign marshaled more Senate opposition to Yucca Mountain than expected by focusing on the project's monumental cost -- nearly $60 billion -- and the safety of shipping radioactive waste by truck, train and barge across the country. In 1998, when he was a Republican senator from Michigan, Abraham expressed concern about shipping nuclear waste through his state. But, as Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group noted, "Sen. Abraham seems to have been much more sensitive to the concerns of people living along (nuclear) transportation routes than Secretary Abraham has turned out to be."
And who can forget the charade of DOE's pro-forma public hearings in Nevada last year when it was obvious that a final decision had already been made? Smug federal bureaucrats chuckled to themselves as politically unsophisticated Nevadans spoke out against the Yucca Mountain project. I know because I was there.
Las Vegas Mayor Goodman, who was a highly successful criminal defense attorney before entering politics, is a powerful ally in our continuing battle against this deadly project. During the public hearings, Goodman vowed to arrest any truck driver who brings a load of nuclear waste to the Greater Las Vegas area.
"The bottom line is we are ultimately going to prevail (in the courts) because we are in the right on this one," the mayor said last week. Five or six lawsuits have already been filed against the Energy Department, and more are on the way. One of them challenges the constitutionality of the 1987 "Screw Nevada" Bill, which designated Yucca Mountain as the only site to be studied despite the fact that Nevada generates none of the nation's nuclear waste.
Nevadans who want to surrender and cut a deal with the Feds should read an informative article in the current (July) issue of National Geographic that describes the dangers of high-level radioactive waste.
"Cleaning up nuclear garbage would be a lot easier if we didn't have to face the chemical and physical chaos of health-threatening radiation, the emission of energy from a radioactive material," the article explains. "Plutonium or cesium or strontium ... emit dangerous radiation that can literally knock electrons off the atoms in our cells, disrupting or destroying cellular function or even causing cells to mutate." This is what the government wants to do to future generations of Nevadans -- our children and grandchildren.
As Sen. Reid said after Tuesday's Senate vote, "There's no deal to be made. They (the Feds) aren't going to give us anything." That's why we must keep fighting against the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in the courts and while we're at it, let's cut off their water too.
This isn't a fair fight and, as the old saying goes, All's fair in love and war. And make no mistake about it, this is a war against those who want to turn our state into the nation's nuclear dumping ground. No thanks!
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.