Mountain West Origins

Mountain West Research of Tempe Arizona was founded in 1974 by James Chalmers, PhD., CRE, who serves as President and Chairman of the Board. Its focus has been as a consulting firm real estate development, urban growth planning and regional economic. However, the event most responsible for transforming Mountain West's socioeconomic consulting into political advocacy was the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in 1979.

At the request of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (the Kemeny Commission), the Social Science Research Council commissioned social scientists to write a series of papers on the human dimensions of the event. [preface; Accident At Three Mile Island: The Human Dimensions, Westview, 1979]

Among those who wrote papers for the commission were James Chalmers and Cynthia B. Flynn of Mountain West, Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischoff and Sarah Lichtenstein of Decision Research and Roger Kasperson of Clark University. This group's experience at Three Mile Island gave them the bona fides to bid on the socioeconomic studies that later were proposed in 1985 by the state of Nevada. It also shaped their view of nuclear energy.

On Dec. 13, 1985, the Socioeconomic Study Selection Committee (comprised of seven local governments, the state Legislative Council Bureau and the NWPO) met in Las Vegas to review 13 proposals received in response to the Request For Proposal. As a result of the review, two proposals were selected for future consideration, and representatives of both of the firms which authored the top-ranked proposals were invited for formal interviews on Jan. 14, 1986.

Following an extensive interview process, Mountain West Research - Southwest, Inc. of Tempe, Arizona was selected as the manager and prime contractor for the Nevada socioeconomic impact study. [Nuclear Waste Newsletter, NWPO, spring 1986, p5]

When the award of the contract to Mountain West was announced in the mid 1986 edition of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Newsletter, the article began with a quotation from Roger Kasperson, director of the Clark University Center for Environment, Technology and Development(CENTED) in Massachusetts. .

Deciding whose 'backyard' shall be chosen [for disposing nuclear waste] raises questions of whether some people should bear the risks for others, of which people should bear the risks and if and how they should be compensated by the beneficiaries [of nuclear power], and of how accountability can be achieved in societal decision-making. Inadequate attention to these issues could produce highly inequitable policies. [ -- National Academy of Sciences Researcher, Roger E. Kasperson in "Equity Issues in Radioactive Waste Management (1983].

The key here is "how accountability can be achieved in societal decision-making", a loaded phrase that has more to do with tinkering with America's social structure than the specifics of Yucca Mountain. Kasperson and a number of others involved at Yucca Mountain saw the socioeconomic studies conducted in Nevada in a much broader perspective than what is or is not good for Nevada's citizens. Instead, they found these studies to be a chance to impose their own concepts of societal decision-making on the larger national and even world community. The socioeconomic studies were meant to be a way of assessing the impact of Yucca Mountain on Nevada and its citizens, but instead became the mechanism for advocacy of the pet political theories of academics.

Roger Kasperson holds a PhD from the University of Chicago in Political Geography, and it is hard to conceive of a person more qualified to dissect the political workings of a state agency like the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office. Kasperson becomes a central figure behind the scenes in Nevada because his was the driving philosophical presence behind the state's anti-repository stand. Where before, the Nevada anti-nuclear movement had been a hodge-podge of unsophisticated activists and test site protestors, now it had a skilled political geographer who knew how to bend the Nevada political landscape.

The interesting thing about the Nuclear Waste Newsletter beginning its announcement of the awarding of the Mountain West contract with a quote from Roger Kasperson is that it shows how deeply the professor was involved in the choice of the prime socioeconomic subcontractor. Even though Kasperson's group at Clark University, the Center for the Environment Technology and Development did not become the prime contract administrator, Mountain West appears to have been staffed by comparatively peripheral intellectuals compared to those from Clark University and those from another subcontractor called Decision Research. The papers produced for NWPO by the Mountain West consortium bear the imprint of Kasperson both philosophically and in terms of the shear volume of output. Kasperson's name appears as co-author of nine papers, ranging from equity issues to post-closure risk analysis, a broad intellectual reach for a political geographer.

The reason the Clark University group is important is because they had a previously formulated a master plan for America's nuclear future as far back as 1979:

"Recognizing nuclear energy as a transitional energy source. This view will limit the role of nuclear energy to the period required to develop and deploy long-term renewable energy sources. It rules out fuel recycling and deployment of the breeder reactor, because a byproduct of this kind of reactor is plutonium, which can be used to produce bombs.

Limiting the total size of the commitment. No nuclear-power plants beyond those currently on order or under construction will be built. The open-ended total scale of the nuclear enterprise is a key ingredient in the nuclear debate and is not resolved by limiting the number of sites (as opposed to plants). Considered with (the above) item, this obviates the plutonium-economy anxiety." [Kasperson, Roger et.al.;Hohenemser, C.; "Institutional Responses to Different Perceptions of Risk"; Accident at Three Mile Island, Westview, 1979, p45]

The fact that this is a call for dismantling America's nuclear energy capacity, written five years before the Nevada socioeconomic studies were started, implies Mountain West's contract with NWPO was perhaps incapable of producing a fair and neutral socioeconomic study that would help the state make informed choices. Because Yucca Mountain is the bottleneck in the nuclear fuel cycle, it afforded Mountain West academicians the opportuity to forward their own independent energy policy.

Also important to note is that the above quotation comes from an article titled "Institutional Responses to Different Perceptions of Risk". The key word here is perceptions, as in perceptions of risk versus actual risk. In conjunction with workers from the affiliated think tank called Decision Research of Eugene Oregon, the Mountain West consortium raised risk perceptions of Yucca Mountain to new heights while undermining the Nevada community's understanding of real risks. Rather than a benign academic argument, the exchange of risk perception for risk analysis became a means to politicize all technological decisions regarding Yucca Mountain.

When it came time for proposals to evaluate the socioeconomic impact of Yucca Mountain on Nevada, it is obvious that a consortium of researchers from the Kemeny Commission would hold an inside track, but it is not clear they were the best advocates for the State of Nevada's interests.


The Mountain West consortium, whose kernel was composed of Mountain West, Decision Research, and the Clark University Center for Technology, Environment and Development, were never hired to do nuts and bolts socioeconomic impact studies. Instead, they were hired to do 'state-of-the-art' research, which in practice came to mean they were allowed extraordinary academic latitude. It is little surprise Mountain West came to be the proponents of a philosophical paradigm shift which incorporated their pet academic theories.

The Mountain West paradigm shift was an attempt, partly subconscious and partly conscious, to fuse a number of competing social philosophies which had reached dead ends into something much greater than the simple sum of those parts. Among the theories which seem to be coalescing are the following:

Mountain West, by winning the monopoly contract to do socioeconomic studies for Nevada, found itself in the position of acting as catalyst to fuse these divergent theories into a whole. They had a political geographer, Roger Kasperson of CENTED, whose philosophy already seemed molded by Marxist, decentralist, and liberation theology to act as the seed. However, Mountain West's philosophical influence was not enough by itself to create a revolution, their philosophy also needed to mesh with the indigenous movements, many of which were intimately involved in the peace protests at the Nevada Test Site.

Local environmental groups, Citizen Alert being the most prominent, had developed a populist message that was tinged by anti-military if not leftist thinking. Elements of liberation theology were present in the Test Site protests exemplified by the yearly Lenten Desert Experience and the organizing Nevada Desert Experience. Many of these test site protests were directed in part by Judy Treichel, now of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force and contractor to NWPO, who had previously been part of the Lenten Desert Experience as well as formed the local affiliate of Clergy and Laity, a Catholic peace and justice movement. The Western Shoshone indian tribe had long been embroiled in land conflicts over Yucca Mountain and the Test Site and their naturalistic philosophy, dovetailed with land politics, created a synergy with the other nuclear opposition groups.

Mountain West gave these competing movements coherence by providing a sophisticated philosophical center for anti-nuclear activities. Mountain West provided the link between old-line Marxist notions and the new eco-philosophies evolving at Yucca Mountain. Roger Kasperson as a political geographer and one of the principals of Mountain West, had since the early 70s contemplated a synthesis of Marxist, decentralist and liberation theology concepts. Others within the Mountain West web provided practical elements needed to implement these theories. Paul Slovic, a psychologist from Decision Research and Kristin Shrader-Frechette, a science philosopher from Florida are two who in particular helped provide the needed legal, moral and social mechanisms to solidify the new philosophy.

Slovic, as head of Decision Research, had long been associated with Mountain West, since before Three Mile Island. Slovic's theory of the 'availability heuristic', stating that people cannot accept risks of technologies to which they are not accustomed, becomes a critical link in eco-philosophy by claiming that 'fears of technology' should to be sufficient to veto technology. Thus, science is delinked from the acceptance of technology in favor of political manipulation by popular causes, such as the "ecology".

Shrader-Frechette came on the scene later, but her thoughts are so philosophically tied with Mountain West that they are inseparable. Shrader-Frechette's revival of the Doctrine of Informed Consent, which equates the designers of Yucca Mountain to Nazis war criminals doing mass experiments on unwitting human guinea pigs, was an attempt to provide a moral and legal basis for the evolving Yucca Mountain eco-philosophy.

As Mountain West's ideas were filtered through the Nuclear Waste Project Office, through Judy Treichel of the Nuclear Waste Task Force, through Chris Brown and Bob Fulkerson of Citizen Alert and through the leaders of the Western Shoshone tribe the sociologists became the de facto organizing force behind anti-nuclear protest in Nevada.


While Mountain West no doubt fulfilled Nevada's political needs by providing a philosophical framework for opposing the siting of a repository, it is not clear they fulfilled their obligation to provide a basis for negotiating for possible benefits should the repository be sited in the state. The state had developed a number of objectives stated during the original Request For Proposal:


. . . . The study should:

  1. Provide factual bases for informed and scientifically and legally defensible decisions and to prepare the State of Nevada for subsequent negotiation, legislation, and litigation (if necessary).
  2. Identify the full range of which the State of Nevada, local governments or individual citizens might incur and therefore serve as the basis for impact planning, impact mitigation, and compensation of claims.
  3. Identify mechanisms and strategies for obtaining mitigation and compensation so as to enable the State to obtain full and timely mitigation of impacts, and compensation where impacts are not mitigable.
  4. Assist the State in minimizing or avoiding social and economic dislocations caused by site investigation, characterization, construction, operation, retrieval, closure or decommissioning relative to repository at Yucca Mountain.
  5. Enable state and local governments to minimize or avoid social and economic costs incurred by state and local governments or private citizens as a result of repository-related activities.
  6. Enable state and local governments to maximize benefits from repository development.
  7. Provide the basis and framework for allocating costs and benefits equitably through the mitigation process.
  8. Enable state and local governments to minimize risks and consequences of possible repository-related accidents. [NWPO, Request For Proposal For A Socioeconomic Impact Assessment And Mitigation Study, 1985]

Since Mountain West's general philosophy was Rawlsian egalitarian, they focused on the equity issue at Yucca Mountain and unsurprisingly found that the siting process wasn't fair. Instead of attempting to fulfill their original mandate to provide mitigation and negotiation options to the State and local governments to relieve these inequities, they instead proposed the state resist all attempts to negotiate without providing a fall-back position. Thus, Mountain West's emphasis on risk perception analysis rather than economic analysis in effect locked the state into a victimization mode.

That doesn't mean Mountain West itself didn't itself profit from its study of Yucca Mountain, and in fact it may have profited handsomely from its work. There were numerous complaints that a real estate database developed by the group was unavailable for use by Nevadans, yet Mountain West bragged that this database had increased its viability as an economic development consulting entity:

Mountain West's involvement in Las Vegas has included both real estate development analysis for regional clients and a major project for the state of Nevada to study siting and transportation impacts of hazardous waste. Through this work, Mountain West has compiled a comprehensive data base on the Nevada market, which will prove valuable to clients interested in this fast growth region. [Mountain West: The Source: For Decisionmakers; Special Edition, 4th Quarter 1988]

In other words, the database Mountain West developed for NWPO was perhaps more useful to promoting the economic interests of Mountain West than the interests of Nevada.

The 1986 Nuclear Waste Newsletter announcing the selection of Mountain West made one final comment:

"The Nuclear Waste Project Office Staff is confident that the Nevada socioeconomic impact assessment project will be a state-of-the-art study -- one that will attract national attention."

It is quite certain that that national attention will be forthcoming now, especially as we uncover what state-of-the-art really means in terms of replacing hard science with political advocacy.