Nevada Political Reality

Yucca Mountain has served to harden the political fault lines in Nevada. Popular fears of radiation, amplified by the political climate, led significant numbers of citizens to vote based on their uneasiness that nuclear spent fuel might be transported and stored in the state. Yucca Mountain thus became a litmus test of political orthodoxy among Nevada's incumbent political elite. If a politician failed to claim the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository horrifyingly dangerous, they were effectively blackballed from political office.

Clearly, some politicians found it in their self interest to perpetuate the fear of Yucca Mountain. Without Yucca Mountain, Nevada is a political wasteland whose greatest problems are competition from Indian gaming and allocation of the few drops of precious water left from the Colorado river. Creating a tragic myth out of Yucca Mountain served the Nevada political establishment in two important ways: 1) it acted as a springboard to the Washington political arena on an important national policy issue and 2) it polarized the electorate in one political party's favor.


Demographics explains why demonization of Yucca Mountain has proven such a potent political strategy. Nevada has long had a transient population, now growing by leaps and bounds, with the majority gravitating towards low-tech gaming and service industries. In contrast to its vibrant service economy, the state has supported a relatively small technological and manufacturing base. The service and technical populations tend to vote at opposite political poles.

The minority of Nevadans are educated in technical areas where they have the scientific or industrial background to objectively judge risk levels of nuclear waste disposal. Engineers and scientists tend to be politically conservative, as are elements of the military stationed in Nevada. Others from the technical community who have experience handling radiation, for example workers from the Test Site, are also conservative. Business groups and construction trade labor unions who see positive economic impact in the construction of a waste site are the traditional backbone of Republican and Democratic bollweevil politics. Consequently, there was a huge potential political windfall for Democratic politicians if they could convince the electorate that the nuclear waste repository was a conspiracy by Republicans to turn the state into dying wasteland.

Ironically, Yucca Mountain is the type of project Democrats used to take pride in. Similar in national impact to the building of Hoover Dam, Yucca Mountain is a large public works project which will prove an environmental and economic plus for the entire United States and potentially aid even Nevada. It therefore wouldn't normally be an issue dividing Democrats from Republicans.

Indeed, at the national level the most prominent advocates of Yucca Mountain are Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D. La)., author of the so-called "Screw Nevada" bill and Congressman John Dingell (D. Mich)., leading nuclear proponent in the House, both Democrats. The new Secretary of Energy, Hazel O'Leary, is also a Democrat who has a strong nuclear utility background and sees the benefits of completing Yucca Mountain. Even Kent Oram, the public relations expert for the American Nuclear Energy Council, is an insider in Democratic politics, having run Nevada Governor Miller's campaign. Opposition to Yucca Mountain thus became a litmus test for the Nevada Democratic Party, as much in response to local political demographics as through consideration of the repository's impact on the state. Later, the Nevada Republican party moved towards the same lockstep position in a game of political catch-up.


The negative image that nuclear waste shipments would irradiate school children and result in nuclear holocaust was so successful for politicians who cultivated it during the 80s that a balloon of nuclear hysteria expanded nearly to the bursting point. Powerbrokers like Richard Bryan, Harry Reid, Jan Laverty-Jones, former Governor Grant Sawyer and Governor Miller all benefited from their opposition stance on the nuclear waste issue. However, this posed a vexing problem. If the political elite allowed even the tiniest hint of dissent to their anti-repository position, their power base could be destroyed as the bubble of fear that kept their followers in check burst. It was with increasing desperation that these politicians tried to silence pro-nuclear critics, posing for group solidarity photo-ops to enforce unanimity.

While at the surface the debate was over nuclear waste, at another level a small clique of Las Vegas good-ole-boys were trying to establish a political dynasty using Yucca Mountain as a key issue. Bryan, Reid and Bilbray had all attended Las Vegas High together and their control over Nevada politics eventually became a hammerlock. Those not able to pass the political purity test of being 100% anti-repository were politically tarred and feathered. These punishments served as examples of what could happen to small politicians who dared to oppose the ruling political class on other issues that drove the state.

The practical payoff was huge. Since the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is a leading hot button issue in Nevada, the winner in this critical debate could establish a political dynasty into the next century. The risk was that if your facts weren't straight and your supporting science weak, you could lose everything if the truth came out.

Unfortunately, the Republican establishment in Nevada was afraid of its own shadow and was unable to effectively oppose the Democratic political machine on Yucca Mountain. Ironically, when Republicans finally jumped on the anti-repository band-wagon it was too late to gain political benefit:

"Fed up" with the Department of Energy's handling of the nation's first high-level nuclear waste repository, Nevada Republican congressional members joined Democratic Rep. Harry Reid and Gov. Richard Bryan in vowing to take the issue to court. . . .

"I congratulate my elected colleagues on their long over-due decision to take a stand in Nevada's behalf," Reid said. "It is unfortunate, however, that their opposition to making Nevada a nuclear garbage dump is three years late in coming." [Manning, Mary; Las Vegas Sun , Aug. 23, 1986, p1A]

Once forced to play catch-up opposing Yucca Mountain, the Republicans compromised their position repeatedly. For example, in 1987 Republican state attorney general Brian McKay folded under to pressure to pay lobbyists to oppose Yucca Mountain:

Attorney General Brian McKay raised objections to paying $400,000 for state lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

During a Board of Examiners hearing, McKay questioned payments to the Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan firm.

The Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office wants the firm to lobby Congress against placing a high-level nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain.

"That's a lot of money," McKay said. "It is like paying four lawyers full time."

McKay said that the Nevada congressional delegation is supposed to carry out nuclear dump lobbying.

"We have two U.S. senators and two congressmen," he added. "I thought that was their purpose."

In the end, however, McKay went along with Gov. Richard Bryan and Secretary of State Frankie Sue Del Papa and approved the contract. [Payment To Lobbyists Questioned, Las Vegas Review Journal, Capitol Bureau , 10/21/87 ]

Barbara Vucanovich, the Republican congresswoman representing northern Nevada, attempted to avoid lockstep with her Democratic congressional cohorts, but offered a rather feeble alternative:

Furious at Congress targeting Nevada as the nation's high-level nuclear repository, Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev., said Wednesday she supports efforts by Marshalls Islands officials to be studied as a potential dump site." [Manning, Mary; Vucanovich Wants Nuke Dump Site in Pacific, Las Vegas Sun, 1/14/88, p1A]

In the 1988 elections, Governor Bryan defeated then Senator Chic Hecht by the slim margin of 1%. While Chic Hecht is known as an honorable businessman, he will never be accused of an excess of charisma, so the closeness of the 1988 election indicated Bryan's electoral weakness. What may well have put Bryan over the top was his opposition to nuclear waste storage, a hot-button issue on which Hecht never properly defined his position. Hecht preferred to push reprocessing and seabed disposal as solutions, positions which were too complex for easy analysis by voters:

Another Hecht bill calls for considering reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel before investing in a deep-earth repository.

Ben Rushe, director of the Energy Department's civilian radioactive waste program, told the panel reprocessing to retrieve uranium is uneconomical in the United States, which has plenty of fossil fuels.

But Hecht said the government should consider it anyway because it reduces the danger to public health. [Las Vegas Sun, 7/17/87]

It is interesting to note in the same article that then Las Vegas mayor Ron Lurie, part of the Democratic establishment, in part agreed with Hecht:

. . . Las Vegas Mayor Ron Lurie said in written testimony the city "strongly endorses" Hecht's Nuclear Energy Waste Policy Act requiring the 50-year storage period.

"Once the 50 years has passed, transportation of the waste would be safer," Lurie said. [Las Vegas Sun 7/17/87]

Later, after Hecht left office, the State of Nevada's position would come to be that a fifty year delay was advisable.

The only bright spot for the Republicans was the shortlived Vision Project started by businessman Bob Gore, who attempted to expose the hypocritical positions of the state political establishment on the Yucca Mountain issue. It was Gore who suggested possible benefits of accepting the repository to a AFL-CIO Union meeting in July of 1991:

"We want nuclear energy to be to Nevada what oil is to Alaska. Alaskans don't pay any taxes. At the end of the year they get a rebate. . ."

"Well I tell you, what I learned on the labor line is next to jobs, everything else is crap!" [Bob Gore speech to AFL-CIO, 7/30/91]

Gore received a sympathetic response from union members worried about the obvious loss of jobs should Nevada lose not only the Nevada Test Site, but Yucca Mountain as well. This combination might well leave the state's technical community and economy in limbo. Bob Loux was quick to contest Gore's claim that jobs were available at Yucca Mountain, going head to head with Gore on a Channel 3 News interview. Gore's Vision Project conducted an aggressive fax campaign on the Yucca Mountain issue, calling the actions of Bob Loux and Senator Bryan to task, but the revelations were given little heed by the popular press.

Gore ran for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in 1992 advocating a pragmatic realism on Yucca Mountain, but his campaign was ill funded and lost in the primary to a cattle rancher from the north. The successful Republican nominee, Demar Dahl, ran away from the Yucca Mountain debate and consequently was destroyed in the general election for lack of a key issue to battle incumbent Harry Reid. Reid brutalized Dahl, who was unable to bring himself to fight the down and dirty campaign run against him. In the process, the state reelected a senator whose greatest hope for Nevada's future at that time seemed to be covering the Test Site with solar collectors, no matter how unlikely this technology.


The motivations of key politicians in regard to Yucca Mountain have become an issue in the 1994 Nevada elections. If Yucca Mountain is benign and Nevada has sacrificed hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits to keep incumbent politicians in office, those incumbents would have a difficult time explaining their actions. The two key races were for Bob Miller's seat as governor and Richard Bryan's U.S. Senate seat. Both have vigorously opposed Yucca Mountain and benefited politically from this positions.

Gov. Bob Miller stood at risk in the 1994 election from an assault from Jan Jones, mayor of Las Vegas and like Miller a Democrat, but won the primary by 40 percentage points.. Yet, the bitter primary race this engendered created a natural opening for Republican Jim Gibbons who took the Republican primary from Secretary of State Cheryl Lau. The questionable management of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office became a possible wedge capable of delivering a normally Democratic state into Republican hands. Gibbons claimed to be anti-Yucca Mountain himself based on his education as a mining engineer, so he was able to take both a populist stance against the repository, while also attacking Millers lack of fiscal responsibility.

Miller found himself in the dificult position of having to deny that he had already negotiated with the nuclear industry through his former campaign consultant Kent Oram (who also conveniently is the chief representative of the American Nuclear Energy Council). It was also inconveniently found that another ANEC consultant, Don Williams of Altamira Communications, had stood to gain $7 million in a BLM landswap arranged by Democratic Congressman Jim Bilbray of Nevada. It thus began to look like there was a network of good-ole-boy politicians who railed against Yucca Mountain in public, but dealt with nuclear insiders behind the public back. Miller was the least insulated from these charges.

The Republican frontrunner in the senate race against Richard Bryan is Hal Furman. Furman, a former Laxalt aid, was immediately accused by Bryan of being a patsy for the nuclear industry:

A pro-nuclear lobbyist sent out 100 invitations for a fund raiser this week for Nevada GOP Senate candidate Hal Furman, a longtime friend of the lobbyist and a challenger to Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev. . . . .

Furman said he doesn't want to take money from ANEC, because he doesn't want to imply he has prejudged what scientists might determine about Yucca Mountain. [ "Barbs Abound in D.C. Bryan foe helped by nuke lobbyist", Las Vegas Sun, 10/1/93]

Furman, however, sees the lack of success by Senator Bryan on the Yucca Mountain issue as a political opening. While not supporting the t imposition of the repository on Nevada (no politician does), Furman is willing to negotiate for benefits and holds Bryan accountable for the managing of NWPO.

"He (Bryan) campaigned for and was elected to the Senate in large measure because of a promise to prevent Nevada from becoming the nation's high-level nuclear waste site," Furman said of Bryan.

"But in the Senate, Mr. Bryan has been outmaneuvered, and he's been outfoxed. And today, Nevada is closer to receiving the nuclear waste than when we hired Senator Bryan nearly five years ago." [Kanigher, Steve; Las Vegas Sun 10/20/93, p2B]

Furman further accused Bryan and Miller of having made a deal with the nuclear industry. Thus, Yucca Mountain may dominate the 1994 elections in Nevada for Governor and Senator and decide whether the state remains a Democratic political fiefdom.


What Nevadans were unaware of as the 1994 elections approached was that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was to be revisited in 1995. The 1987 Amendments to NWPA is known as "Screw Nevada" in the popular vocabulary, but the 1995 amendments threatened to be an even larger "Screw Nevada II"

First there was the question of siting of a Monitored Retrievable Storage facility, which by the 1982 Act had been limited to states not being sited for the main geologic repository. Common sense, however, suggested that the MRS facility should be sited as close to Yucca Mountain as possible. The need for an immediate solution to this problem was in part driven by Congresses' NWPA commitment to begin accepting nuclear waste by 1998. Thus it was likely Nevada would have the MRS facility shoved down its throat because although there was strong opposition within the state to accepting such a site, acceptance elsewhere would be equally if not more difficult.

Consumer's Power Co. Chairman William McCormick was quoted in July of 1994 on his feelings concerning the need of the industry to press forward on the NWPA revisions:

"I think that everyone realizes that it is very important that we get a federal interim storage site authorized as soon as possible." To do that, McCormick said, the industry has to define the issue early. "I think there is a consensus developing that we need to get this done as quickly as possible," he said. [Newman, Pamela; "Nuclear waste strategy Splits Industry", Tuesday, July 26, 1994, p1]

Among the areas likely to be addressed in the 1995 amendments are:

1) The need to establish DOE's obligation to accept spent fuel some time in 1998.

2) The need to grant the nuclear industry full access to the nuclear waste fund.

3) The need to provide benefits to the high-level repository host state.

The Nuke Lite campaign in 1994 thus worked to neutralize the negotiations issue as part of the democratic process within the state. This effectively allowed incumbents politicians who had vowed not to negotiate under any circumstances to slide into the elections without every having had to discuss what their position would be in 1995 when national legislation might force Nevada to accept the worst of a bad deal.