Lost Benefits

A key element in campaign against Yucca Mountain has been an effort by anti-repository forces to convince the public that there will be no compensation for taking on the burden of the repository. The theory is apparently that if Nevadans are sufficiently propagandized with the idea that no benefit will come to the state, no matter what is offered by the Nuclear Waste Negotiator or the U.S. Congress, they will be less likely to give up their opposition to the site. To carry out this reeducation campaign, which hinges on convincing the populace that they should distrust their national government, a concerted effort was required from NWPO, state politicians, the socioeconomic researchers at Mountain West, and environmental activists.

In a letter to the media in July of 1992, Bob Loux had the following to say:

". . the idea that Nevada is losing big federal dollars by opposing the Yucca Mountain project is nothing more than nuclear industry and DOE propaganda aimed at changing public opinion about the project."

Loux was perhaps himself engaging in a bit of propaganda, attempting to convince Nevadans of the lack of any potential benefits of hosting the repository. In reality, there were many monetary and non-monetary options open to negotiation, including perhaps a limited right to veto the site even while accepting benefits. A March 26, 1987 report in the Washington Post on a bill that would have provided monetary compensation for accepting a repository puts the intent of congress, and the intent of the Nevada delegation in a different light than Loux claims.

There is a little carrot in this bill," J. Bennett Johnson (D-La.) said in announcing the legislation.

The proposal provides $100 million annual incentive payments to the recipient of the permanent repository and $50 million for the temporary storage facility that would prepare waste for eventual burial.

Such payments "for something that's going to happen anyway . . . becomes a very attractive deal," said Johnston, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman. . .

"Nuclear waste involves no great harm to the areas involved. It is a perceived problem," Johnston said. "These are very generous amounts of money to deal with a perceived problem." [Washington Post, March 26, 1987]

In fact, the greatest obstacle to monetary compensation for accepting Yucca Mountain has not been the federal government. Indeed Congress has nearly begged the state of Nevada to accept benefits. Nor was the nuclear industry opposed to benefits, and in fact their none-too-secret Nevada Initiative was based on the acceptance of benefits. Instead, it was Nevada's own politicians who fought tooth and nail to torpedo any hint that Nevada might receive compensation for Yucca Mountain. Between Senators Bryan and Reid in the Senate, and Governor Miller and Robert Loux in the state of Nevada, all talk of negotiating for benefits was proactively squashed. From the Washington Post article of 1987:

Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nv.) and Rep James H. Bilbray (D-Nev.) immediately denounced the money offer as a "bribe," and Nevada Governor Richard H. Bryan (D) called it "nuclear blackmail."

"Nevada won't be bought," Reid said. "Efforts to negotiate a high-ticket price tag to buy us off won't change our opposition."

Bilbray said the money offer was "a bribe that Congress will never accept." [Washington Post, March 26, 1987]

While this posturing played to the political galleries in Nevada , it was certainly damaging to the people of Nevada. A hundred million dollars is real money in a small state like Nevada, but the public was not allowed to judge for themselves. Instead, Bennett Johnson's bill was labeled "Screw Nevada" by the state's pundits and the media played down the benefits issue.

The benefits offered to Nevada by Bennett Johnston may be a bribe as expressed by Congressman Bilbray in 1987, but they are certainly not "nuclear blackmail". Roads, bridges, supercomputers and a thousand other benefits are all part of the federal budget benefit equation. Nevada's politicians had never been shy about lobbying for fighter-bomber wings for Nellis Air Force Base or for continued testing at the Nevada Test Site in order to bring money into the state, though those projects were arguably more dangerous for Nevadans than Yucca Mountain. Yet, money for Yucca Mountain was considered a bribe while efforts to obtain "pork" in exchange for other political favors were considered good politics.

A hundred million dollars may not seem much to a neighboring state like California or even to most of the mid-sized states of the Union, but it must be remembered that the entire Nevada state yearly budget is only a billion dollars. Even more poignant is the fact that Governor Miller was forced to cope with a 136 million dollar shortage in 1992 in a brutal way. Claims that a mental patient took his life when the Miller mandated cuts in the mental health program were a persistent rumor.

David Leroy, a former Idaho Lieutenant Governor, was appointed in 1989 as U.S. Nuclear Waste Negotiator. As negotiator, Leroy communicates with governors of 58 jurisdictions and leaders of federally recognized Indian tribes to determine if any of those entities would be willing to host a repository or Monitored Retrieval Storage facility (a transitional repository). In the March 1991 edition of the Nevada Monitor, published by the Nevada Nuclear Waste Study Committee, Leroy had the following to say about the types of benefits available to Nevada:

"It's obvious to me, particularly from historical experience, that financial benefits alone will not drive the acceptance of these facilities. When I begin to talk benefits, I have the broadest possible concept of what that term may include. I start with the concept that safety must come first. After that, we're interested in talking about choices of technology which the local citizens might be interested in so they can feel comfortable with the facilities. I then move to concepts of shared control in the operation or ownership of those facilities, and only later do I begin to talk about financial benefits or infrastructure benefits.

As to the later, everything is negotiable. We can talk in terms of educational benefits, of colleges and universities creating a center of excellence. We can talk about infrastructure improvements like building bridges and roads. We can go into a community, clean up an existing environmental problem and give that community a net improvement in its environmental role." [Nevada Monitor, Nevada Nuclear Waste Study Committee, March 1991]

While Nevada may be in the process of being "screwed" by the federal government in terms of the forced siting of Yucca Mountain, it is not being denied compensation because of federal reluctance to meet its obligations. Nevada's politicians have expressed not only opposition to compensation, but opposition to even discussing the possibility of compensation. The technical community in Nevada admits in private that the actual impact of Yucca Mountain, both economically and in terms of risks, will be much less than anticipated. Consequently, the offers made by Bennett Johnston and the government were likely overly generous and may not be offered again. By not negotiating, Nevada may have thrown away a windfall.


The preemption of all discussion of negotiated benefits from popular forums tactic may in part be rooted in the work of the state's socioeconomic consultants, especially Dr. Paul Slovic of Decision Research. In a paper titled "Images of Disaster: Perception and Acceptance of Risks From Nuclear Power", written in the late 70s, Slovic addressed methods for gaining public acceptance of projects with high perceived risks In an analogy to the Hermiston, Oregon nerve gas depot at the Umatilla Army Depot, Slovic had this to say:

"Whereas public opinion around the state was more than 90 percent opposed, residents of Hermiston were 90 per cent in favor of the transfer (of nerve gas), despite the warning that the fuses on the gas bombs deteriorate with age, but that the gas does not. . . . Several factors seem to have been crucial to Hermiston's acceptance of nerve gas. For one, munitions and toxic chemicals had been stored there safely since 1941 (so the record was good and the presence of the hazard was familiar). Second, there were clear economic benefits to the community from continued storage at the depot of hazardous substances, in addition to the satisfaction of doing something patriotic for the country. Finally, the responsible agency, the U.S. Army, was respected and trusted." [Slovic et. al.;"Images of Disaster: Perception and Acceptance of Risks From Nuclear Power", Accident At Three Mile Island, Westview, 1979]

Consequently, Slovic long ago hypothesized that acceptance of a site like Yucca Mountain depended on:

  1. Similar risk experience.
  2. Trust of the authorities
  3. Economic benefit.

Risks associated with both the proposed repository and Nevada Test Site have long been a target of groups like Greenpeace, American Peace Test, Nevada Desert Experience and other environmentalists. This is despite the fact that risks associated with the Test Site have long been understood by the public and incorporated into their calculations of the benefits of living in Southern Nevada.

Trust in the DOE has been systematically attacked over the years by NWPO and the environmentalists. While the DOE has certainly made many mistakes, it has also made a good faith effort to increase its levels of trust.

Benefits form the third leg of the Yucca Mountain acceptance triangle according to Slovic's theory. It is therefore unsurprising that NWPO and the state's politicians, spurred by their socioeconomic consultants, adopted an anti-benefits philosophy and attacked the possibility of Nevada's remuneration for Yucca Mountain with a vengeance.

If Yucca Mountain turns out to be as safe as claimed by scientists, and its impact on tourism and infrastructure nil, then Nevada will have foregone billions of dollars of benefits merely to sooth the political feathers of its leading politicians. More devastating than the loss of money may be the loss of the technological community that might be brought to Nevada with a proper structuring of benefits from Yucca Mountain. For example, the development of a local energy research center that specialized in nuclear and solar technologies would have the added benefit of stabilizing a top-notch engineering and scientific community.

What repository opponents have failed to address are the downside dangers to Nevada of not developing Yucca Mountain. Betting that the next hundred years of development in Las Vegas will be entirely generated by gambling and tourism, in a risky bet at a time when gambling is being legalized nationally and the Clinton administration is attacking the mining and grazing industries as too greedy. Since the state has little technology base to speak of, federal projects such as the repository become prize economic plums. Nevada's opposition to Yucca Mountain has thus cost the Silver State dearly by throwing away the one point of leverage that might have been used to trade for prime federal technical projects.

Nevada has a dismal success rate in attracting large-scale high-technology projects and the state may now even be shunned because of the perceived anti-technology bias of its politicians. It is interesting to note that the only instance where Nevada benefited from leverage due to Yucca Mountain, the supercomputer project at UNLV, was originally opposed by Senator Richard Bryan. A short list of some of the other technical projects Nevada has lost follows:

Thus, opposition to Yucca Mountain is merely the most visible symptom that the state's technological potential is drifting. The opposition of key Nevada politicians to Yucca Mountain, based on exagerated perceptions of risk, carries over to opposition and delay of other technologies as well. Recognizing this, an independent citizen advisory group backed by the the Nevada Nuclear Waste Study Committee began developing a white paper on possible negotiation points in late 1994 in preparation to the likely reopening of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in the upcoming 1985 national legislature. The purpose of this effort was to sidestep the political establishment and attempt to procure benefits for Nevada in a rational structure before all such opportunities evaporated. Among the benefits the Study Committee reviewed are the following: