Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, an amateur boxer in his youth, delivered what appears to be a knockout blow to the Energy Department's badly mismanaged Yucca Mountain Project earlier this month. And if he did, we owe him and the rest of Nevada's congressional delegation a huge debt of gratitude on behalf of our children and grandchildren.
When I endorsed our senior senator for reelection in 1998, I wrote that we needed him in Congress in order to protect our state's vital interests and to block the DOE's fatally flawed plan to store more than 77,000 tons of deadly radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain only 90 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
I say "fatally flawed" because the nonpartisan and highly respected General Accounting Office (GAO) has just urged the Bush administration to postpone indefinitely a decision on whether to establish the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The GAO report was a direct result of relentless efforts by Nevada's congressional delegation, headed by Sen. Reid, over the past few years. At times, they appeared to be fighting a lonely, uphill battle against the entire Washington establishment and the powerful nuclear energy lobby.
According to a draft GAO report obtained by the Washington Post, the Energy Department "is unlikely to achieve its goal of opening a repository at Yucca Mountain by 2010 and has no reliable estimate of when, and at what cost, such a repository could be opened."
The report went on to say that it would take at least five more years to complete detailed research and cost estimates, and to resolve 293 outstanding technical issues before the administration could responsibly designate the southern Nevada site for the repository. And this despite the fact that the federal government has already spent $8 billion worth of our tax money on a giant nuclear boondoggle.
"I think it's the beginning of the end of Yucca Mountain," Reid declared. "This (GAO) report is a damning indictment of a process Americans relied upon to protect their health and safety." Gov. Kenny Guinn said the DOE project is "doomed to failure" and urged the Bush administration to suspend plans for the nuclear waste repository, while Reid's Republican colleague, John Ensign, reminded the administration of President Bush's campaign promise to base his final decision on "sound science."
Fortunately, any Bush administration decision on the project must be approved by Congress -- and that's where Reid and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., will act to kill the measure.
Ironically, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, called the GAO report "fatally flawed" and vowed to press ahead with the project and make a recommendation to the president by next February. Of course a favorable recommendation has been inevitable ever since Congress passed the so-called "Screw Nevada" bill in 1987, designating Yucca Mountain as the only potential site to be studied. Ever since, the DOE has been going through the motions to support a pre-determined conclusion. Adding even more irony to his response, Abraham also objected to the GAO's "pre-determined conclusion" on the Yucca Mountain project. Recently, DOE has extended the public comment period in a continuing effort to mask its blatant hypocrisy on this issue.
When I sent my previous Yucca Mountain columns to the DOE project office in North Las Vegas, they thanked me for my comments and assured me that they would be taken into consideration as part of the site recommendation process. But many of us remember the public hearings in Carson City earlier this year, where DOE officials smirked and nodded knowingly to each other as the local yokels expressed their points of view.
Before the GAO report became public, the Energy Department's own inspector general confirmed press reports that the high-powered Chicago law firm representing the DOE project had close ties to the nuclear energy industry, proving once again that this project is much more about politics than about science. Otherwise, why would Congress have eliminated all other potential sites from consideration before "scientific" tests were conducted?
The IG report revealed that Winston & Strawn, the law firm hired to give the federal government "impartial advice" on the nuclear waste licensing process, lobbied for the Nuclear Energy Institute on its licensing application to the DOE. Thus, the same attorneys who provided legal advice to the DOE on Yucca Mountain also worked for the Institute. Can you say conflict of interest?
Winston & Strawn then withdrew from the project because of its obvious conflict and a money-grubbing Washington law firm claimed the $16.5 million contract to help prepare DOE's nuclear waste licensing procedure. I'm surprised that we haven't heard from former Nevada Gov. Bob List, who signed on as a nuclear industry lobbyist a few months ago.
Other sell-outs include former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu and ex-vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who are lobbying Congress in favor of the Nevada site for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth. Moral of the story: When in doubt, go for the money.
So despite serial mismanagement of the Yucca Mountain project and flagrant conflicts of interest by DOE legal advisers, Energy Secretary Abraham will submit a favorable recommendation on the project to President Bush by next February. It just goes to show that in our democratic process, money is more important than public opinion. But let's not forget to thank Sen. Reid and his congressional colleagues for defending Nevada against the DOE and a well-financed lobbying effort by the nuclear power industry.
STUPID HEADLINE of the Week -- "Clinton: Truth Will Be His Legacy." Off the record, no comment!
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.