The Nuclear Coalition

If Yucca Mountain is not merely a scientific issue, but a battle of warring ideologies vying for power, who are the warriors in this conflict? Opposition to the repository is often naively depicted as a simple grassroots environmental movement. Nuclear proponents (labeled generically as "the nuclear industry"), are in contrast seen as a monolithic entity. In reality, the structure of the two warring camps is much more complex than this and deserves explanation. We start with the nuclear proponents.


The most important thing to understand about the nuclear industry is that there is none. There are utilities that have nuclear plants, there are companies that provide nuclear components, there are government agencies that oversee nuclear technology and there are trade organizations that promote nuclear issues. Nevertheless, as a whole these entities are not monolithic and are not engaged exclusively in nuclear energy technology but compete in a variety of energy and industrial technologies.

Because the industry is so fragmented, nuclear energy has no dedicated champions willing to risk all in its defense. The result is that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository now stands at risk of being defeated politically before it has been studied scientifically. Recognizing Nevada is perhaps a final battleground, the various nuclear entities have begun to evolve from a passive to active role in promoting the repository. The Nevada Initiative, a combined public relations and lobbying effort was created in 1991 by the American Nuclear Energy Council and other nuclear trade organizations to convince Nevadans of the inevitability and potential benefits of accepting the nuclear repository in their state. The political sparks now flying in Nevada are in large part the result of nuclear institutions finally confronting an already entrenched nuclear opposition on the repository issue.

The Department of Energy is charged with conducting the Yucca Mountain site characterization, however because of federal restrictions it is not designed to be an active proponent of nuclear energy. Nuclear trade organizations like the American Nuclear Energy Council (ANEC) and more generic power industry groups like the U. S. Council on Energy Awareness (USCEA) have been at the forefront of the political war to convince Nevadans of the safety and potential benefits of accepting the repository. However, these trade groups have often had conflicting allegiances and sometimes warred with themselves. For example, while ANEC strictly represents nuclear interests, the USCEA represents both nuclear and traditional utilities, some of which have little or no stake in promoting nuclear technology.

Recognizing that they could not effectively promote nuclear energy as a disjointed industry at odds with itself, in December of 1993 four lobbying organizations combined to create the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). Merged into the new organization were the American Nuclear Energy Council, the Nuclear Management and Resources Council, the U.S. Council on Energy Awareness and the Edison Electric Institute. The first president and CEO of the NEI is former USCEA President Phillip Bayne. The hope is that consolidation under the NEI will allow this new coalition to mount an effective counter campaign against the environmental lobby which has for the last twenty years monopolized media coverage and political debate on nuclear issues.


After World War II and the exploding of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, research began on other military uses of nuclear energy, most notably hydrogen bomb development and the nuclear submarine reactor program. However, it was the submarine reactors developed by Admiral Hyman Rickover for the Navy in the 1950s that eventually became the basis of our commercial nuclear power industry.

To counter the horrific images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Harry Truman and U.S. scientists attempted to paint a positive public perception of the "friendly" atom and were for the most part successful. This was an era in which scientists were trusted almost implicitly and there was great optimism that the atom could be harnessed for peace. Over the ensuing decades until the present, more than one hundred nuclear reactors were brought on-line in the U.S., providing 21% of the nation's energy.

Although concerns for disposal of radioactive waste were lax in the earlier years, the National Academy of Science concluded as early as 1955 that geologic storage would be the most likely means of storing the accumulating radioactive wastes. Still, the first major attempt to seriously study a geologic burial site was not until a salt dome structure at a site near Lyons, Kansas was investigated in the early 1970s. This study ended when it was found that nearby brine extraction activities compromised the integrity of the site, effectively ending further study of salt domes for commercial high level waste (although not for military waste as at New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Project).

Previous to the Carter presidency, an attempt was made to reduce the volume of waste through a breeder reactor program which would have recycled spent fuel into new forms of nuclear fuel. The Clinch River Breeder program was canceled by Carter shortly after construction began, in part because falling uranium prices made the separation of plutonium cost prohibitive, and because the plutonium was viewed in many circles as being part of the expanding nuclear arms race. This changed the calculus of nuclear waste disposal because it had been anticipated that spent fuel would only be stored temporarily near reactor sites in holding pools before being shipped out for reprocessing. The pools were not designed for long-term storage and therefore the nation was faced with the dilemma of finding a way to dispose of the waste.

In 1982, congress attempted to resolve the disposal issue with enactment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The act committed the government to accepting the waste from commercial nuclear utilities, conditional on setting up a Nuclear Waste Fund paid through a mill levy on nuclear rate payers. Originally, nine sites were chosen for study: Yucca Mountain, Nevada; Davis Canyon and Lavender Canyon, Utah; Deaf Smith and Swisher, Texas; Vacherie Dome, Louisiana; Cypress Creek Dome and Richton, Mississippi.

In 1987, an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (the so-called "Screw Nevada Bill") was pushed through congress which limited study to Yucca Mountain. Senator Bennett Johnston, D-La., sponsor of the amendment, also proposed legislation that would have substantially increased benefits to Nevada, but his efforts were rudely rejected by Governor Bryan and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, an insult still not forgotten by Johnston.

By 1990, it was clear that the Yucca Mountain project was in political trouble in Nevada, so much so that the entire project was in danger of being derailed. At this time, the American Nuclear Energy Council brought on Las Vegas public relations experts to bolster the pro-nuclear presence in the Nevada community. ANEC's Nevada consultants were anxious to go to a full fledged political war against the anti-nuclear activists in Nevada, backed by promises of $10 million in funding over three years from the industry. This strategy was in sharp contrast to the passive approach the industry had taken until that time. Tentative steps towards an aggressive advocacy war brought political heat that the industry was not comfortable handling and they backed down, spending only $2.5 million over four years, less than the yearly advertising budget of some Nevada car dealerships.

With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the nuclear industry faced the prospect of being regulated by former senator Timothy Wirth, the heir apparent to the Secretary of Energy position with strong ties to the anti-nuclear environmental movement. The industry was pleasantly surprised with Clinton's choice of Hazel O'Leary, a lawyer with Washington Beltway and nuclear utility experience who was sympathetic to the industry position on Yucca Mountain. Paradoxically, O'Leary caused severe problems for the industry's efforts in Nevada because nuclear lobbyists felt her position within the Clinton administration was vulnerable and they didn't wish to lose this lone ally.

Pro-repository advertising was pulled in Nevada in 1993 because Secretary O'Leary did not wish to have a confrontational atmosphere and the nuclear industry was overly eager to please; this effectively ceded the field to anti-nuclear activists who were under no such constraint. In late 1993, Secretary O'Leary began revealing past indiscretions of the Department of Energy in regard to non-consensual testing of human subjects with exposure to radiation doses. The ensuing media circus this engendered made objective discussions of nuclear risks nearly impossible during 1994, biasing the upcoming 1994 elections against those with any allegiance to the nuclear industry.

The reorganization of the "nuclear industry" lobby, the appointment of Hazel O'Leary and backroom political maneuvers substantially neutralized the Nevada Initiative in 1993 and 1994. The nuclear coalition further weakened its position by agreeing to a backroom deal, "Nuke Lite", designed to save Democrats Governor Miller and Senator Bryan from opposition in the 1994 campaign and bolster the Clinton presidency in exchange for promises of future cooperation. However, these compromises only delayed a critical future decision for nuclear interests. If present nuclear facilities are to continue operation (much less for new nuclear capacity to be brought on-line), the nuclear coalition must make a decision whether to fight a holding action or go on the offensive in Nevada. Yucca Mountain is therefore the linchpin determining whether nuclear technology slowly strangles, or whether it thrives and sees a new renaissance.