The Sawyer Commission

In 1985 the state legislature created the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects (NCNP). Then Governor Richard Bryan appointed Grant Sawyer, former governor of Nevada (1959-1966) to chair the commission, which became known as the Sawyer Commission. Composed of a number of leading citizens, the Commission unfortunately took on the role of kangaroo court. Grant Sawyer and the other members met ritualistically to hear testimony from Bob Loux and the Nuclear Waste Project Office staff, who inevitably touted the failures of the Department of Energy. Then the Commission would pass out judgement against the repository. According to the Commission's 1992 summary report:

The Commission has been actively studying the federal nuclear waste repository program for over six years. Looking back over that time, it becomes apparent that current national waste management policy and the implementation of that policy by DOE exhibit certain characteristics that reflect serious problems for the country's nuclear waste disposal efforts unless fundamental changes are made. This observation derives from the Commission's experience with various aspects of the federal program and from findings and experience generated through Nevada-specific oversight and research efforts. [Report of the State of Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects, September, 1992, pix]

If the oversight and research efforts reviewed by the Sawyer Commission had actually been generated in good faith by NWPO, alarm over DOE's reported lack of credibility would have been warranted. Unfortunately, the Commission was misled by the psychologists of Mountain West and by NWPO's political agenda. Under the guidance of Grant Sawyer, the commission overlooked NWPO's shortcomings in favor of DOE bashing.

Richard Bryan formally announced the appointment of the original members of the Sawyer Commission in November, 1985. The Commission was composed of former governor Grant Sawyer, then Las Vegas mayor Ron Lurie, Commissioner Thalia Dondero, James Cashman III, labor representative Frank Caine, Michdon Mackedon and Ann Pierce. During 1992, Mayor Jan Laverty Jones, County Commissioner Don Schlesinger, and Peter Thomas replaced Lurie, Dondero and Cashman.

Frank Caine appears to be the only one on the board who is not adamantly opposed to Yucca Mountain. Peter Thomas now appears to lean against the repository, but seems disturbed at the kangaroo court atmosphere of the Commission meetings. Any dissent to the official position is not, however, evident in the reports issued by the Sawyer Commission, which are stridently defamatory of DOE. In fact, so eager were the powers running the Commission to squelch all support for the Yucca Mountain project, that Frank Caine, the labor leader represented on the commission, was not allowed to see the 1992 summary report before it was issued, much less offer a minority opinion.

A chance street-corner conversation between this author, Grant Sawyer and Don Schlesinger (county commissioner and Commission member) after the the Sawyer Commission meeting of July 2, 1992 suggests just how biased the proceedings are. During the conversation, I suggested that some of the material I was researching for this book was highly indicative of problems at NWPO, both in regards to the unregulated flow of money to out-of-state socioeconomic studies, as well to the lack of appropriate scientific rigor of those socioeconomic studies. I pointed out, as an example, that the Commission had just received two hours of testimony from William Freudenburg, a rural sociologist, who spoke on the subject of engineering risk analysis and Murphy's law. These were fields in which Freudenburg's qualifications are suspect, yet no one voiced any concern.

I was told by Grant Sawyer that I should be spending my time investigating DOE rather than NWPO. The implication was that in Sawyer's eyes, NWPO was incapable of sin. This struck me as an inappropriate attitude for a public servant to be taking, and even Mr. Schlesinger, who has exceptionally close ties to Governor Sawyer, seemed taken aback.

Other statements from the 1992 Sawyer Commission report are also enlightening:

Likewise, the Commission considers research on socioeconomic and environmental risks associated with a Yucca Mountain repository to be compelling. Nevada's unique tourism-dependent economy is perhaps more vulnerable to disruption by the impacts associated with a nuclear waste repository than that of any other state . . . . [Report of the State of Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects, September, 1992, x]

Of course, the theory that socioeconomic doom awaits Nevada due to negative nuclear imagery associated with the repository has been forwarded most forcefully by Paul Slovic of Decision Research, who has been a researcher with NWPO since 1985 as part of the Mountain West socioeconomic studies. Slovic had made a career out of getting his nuclear imagery theories published in multiple venues, including NWPO reports, articles in the journal Science, articles in the Journal of Risk Analysis, etc. until his views seemed to predominate. Of course, the fact that Slovic worked for NWPO and was funded with millions of dollars tells us that his subsequentpublication in various journals are not necessarily independent works, nor are they therefore "compelling" as indicated by the Sawyer Commission. Our earlier discussions of Slovic's analysis of negative imagery with rebutting arguments from Basset and Hemphill are given in the earlier Chapter 19, Fear Sells.

It is interesting to note that the Commission report of 1992 cites two articles in its Attachment IV, and Attachment V which supposedly voice independent academic concern over Yucca Mountain and its affects on Nevada. Attachment IV, Time To Rethink Nuclear Waste Storage (Issues in Science and Technology), is by James Flynn, Roger Kasperson and Paul Slovic, all contractors to Mountain West who we've met before in various guises. Attachment V, Perceived Risk, Trust, and the Politics of Nuclear Waste (Science, 13 December 1991, Vol 254, pp 1603-1607), is by Paul Slovic, James Flynn, and Mark Layman, also part of the original Mountain West studies. Consequently, the state is citing its own paid contractors as independent academic opposition. It seems deceptive for the State of Nevada to imply that there is nationally academic outrage over Yucca Mountain when these academic papers are entirely self generated.

The Sawyer Commission may have come to believe its duty was to reshape national energy policy:

The experience with the current flawed waste program in Nevada has contributed to the emerging realization that a policy reassessment and a change in direction are needed. The lessons learned in Nevada, by Nevada researchers, policy makers and others, can help shape a more successful and publicly acceptable waste disposal strategy for the future. The State has sought to communicate those lessons to national policy makers and others who will determine the course of the country's nuclear waste efforts after Yucca Mountain. Likewise, researchers and technical experts working within the State's oversight program have promulgated their findings and insights through the professional literature, where it is beginning to be noticed and used for informing incipient policy decisions. [Report of the State of Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects, September, 1992, xi]

The Commission is correct that notice has been paid the State's researchers and their inordinate impact on policy making. NWPO's undisciplined scientific oversight of Yucca Mountain makes it unlikely such an unguided policy missile will again be allowed to dominate America's energy policy. The movement to avoid a repeat of the Nevada experience is already apparent in the structure of New Mexico's approach to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, which takes advantage of in-state talent to conduct socioeconomic impact assessment.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant bill (HR 2637) that passed Congress in October of 1992 was strongly influenced to not follow the example of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects. The funding of socioeconomic studies in New Mexico is being done through the University of New Mexico system. The Socio-Economic Impact Assessment Group (SEIAG) within the Waste-management Education and Research Consortium (WERC) in New Mexico is designed to guarantee reseachers will be predominantly in-state professionals with a stake in the outcome.

Unlike Nevada, New Mexico has accepted benefits for accepting the WIPP project, amounting to over $400 million over the next twenty years. Fears of nuclear waste disasters and negative nuclear imagery have not been inordinate as predicted by Slovic et. al. from NWPO and New Mexico appears to be well on its way to adjusting to the WIPP project.

The Sawyer Commission made three policy recommendations in 1992 for the following two year period:

The commission urges the legislature, governor, local elected officials and the state's congressional delegation to continue and maintain strong and unified opposition to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Project. Further, that no actions be taken that could be interpreted to imply that state policy is in any way open to change.

The Commission urges the governor, legislature, congressional delegation and others to actively pursue a reassessment and redirection of national nuclear waste policy.

The Commission concludes that the agency for Nuclear Projects is effectively carrying out statutory responsibilities for independent oversight, state and local government coordination, and public information. Further, the Commission recommends that the governor and legislature continue to provide state funding for important agency objectives.

[Report of the State of Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects, September, 1992, xiii]

In a nutshell, this is a call for Nevada to refuse benefits, obstruct the study of Yucca Mountain through the efforts of NWPO and obstruct national energy policy by imposing Nevada's views on the country. These are far from modest objectives the Sawyer Commission has set for itself.


Perhaps Grant Sawyer's main contribution to his Commission was his lawyerly ability to act as inquisitor of anyone who testified in a positive manner about Yucca Mountain. As an example, an exchange at the July 1992 Commission meeting between the former Governor and Bill Andrews (previously of Science Applications International Corporation and now of the Harry Reid center for the environment) shows the prosecutorial flavor:

Chairman Sawyer: "You are involved with a contractor to the DOE?"

Mr. Andrews: That is correct.

Chairman Sawyer: Are you at all concerned about the credibility of the DOE.

Mr. Andrews: Yes, Sir - I am.

Chairman Sawyer: Have you told the DOE your concerns about their credibility?

Mr. Andrews: That is right, I have.

Chairman Sawyer: How have you done it?

Mr. Andrews: And in the area where I deal with them - I don't alwaysagree with them - I'm sort of a straight-on-person, you know. If the Emperor has no clothes, he has no clothes.

Chairman Sawyer: I can see that and I appreciate it. Have you given the DOE the sort of material you are giving us today? Questioning the credibility of the Nevada Office (NWPO)?

Mr. Andrews: Yes I have.

Chairman Sawyer: You have? Could we have a copy of that?

Mr. Andrews: Uh - I guess - state your question again - maybe I misunderstood?

Chairman Sawyer: Well today you have given us written material (interrupted by Mr. Andrews)

Mr. Andrews: Questioning the credibility of DOE?

Chairman Sawyer: Questioning the credibility of the Nevada Project Office - you said you had also expressed the same concerns to DOE, who is your employer. . . (interrupted by Mr. Andrews)

Mr. Andrews: Not in writing - I have, I have asked - I have and it may appear self-serving since I was managing the umm, the rail access development, but I recommended to them that would continue - for several reasons - one there's a lot of local governments involved now and its a job that needs to be done. SAIC no longer has responsibility for that work, so I can say that.

Chairman Sawyer: Okay. You're concerned about the credibility of DOE - you say you orally have told them that you're concerned about the credibility?

Mr. Andrews: That is correct. Because I want them, in my area, which is transportation, I make sure that the words come out right. So I get after them in the same way, if I think somethin's wrong.

Chairman Sawyer: Okay, well we appreciate your input Mr. Andrews, very much. We will file your remarks.

[Minutes of the Meeting of the Commission on Nuclear Projects, July 2, 1992]

This was the only verbatim section of the July 2, 1992 Commission on Nuclear Projects meeting transcribed in the minutes, omitting Mr. Andrews other more telling and coherent remarks about the failure of NWPO to conduct adequate oversight. This particular testimony was transcribed because of the Sawyer Commission's preoccupation with trying to compromise proponents of Yucca Mountain as either stooges of the DOE or perhaps even liars. Grant Sawyer, as a lawyer, is adept at using prosecutorial techniques to confuse anyone speaking before the Commission in favor of Yucca Mountain. Through a combination of interruption, irrelevancies, limitations on speaking time and by questioning the character of the speaker, Mr. Sawyer has been able confuse speakers and divert attention from accusations that NWPO may not be perfect. Sawyer used similar techniques to disrupt the September 1992 presentation of Carl Gertz, head of DOE's Yucca Mountain Project Office.

In the spring of 1994, Gov. Sawyer suffered a stroke and the Sawyer Commission has not been as active a participant in the battle over Yucca Mountain. However, the release of Sawyer's autobiography, Hang Tough, in 1994 gives some further insight into his views on Yucca Mountain.

Nevada produces no nuclear waste of its own, yet the most expensive political campaign in the history of the state is going on now to assure us that radioactive waste is nice and safe, and that we should relax and enjoy it." [laughter] But the bottom line is, if nuclear waste is all that safe, why don't the states where it comes from keep it? We are talking about a ten thousand year situation here, longer than the history of civilization! I have asked them, "Well, tell me, what was Yucca Mountain like ten thousand years ago? How can you assure us that it will be safe for ten thousand years?" The DOE-paid scientists position is absurd: as Senator Kerry of Nebraska said, "They lie a lot, the Department of Energy." Of course they do. It's all very interesting.

It finally dawned on us that the federal government was fronting for an extravagantly profitable private industry! It isn't tax dollars, but utility dollars that pay for every bit of what's going on. Congress is permitting itself to be used and financed by a private industry to promote what they call a "federal" project. Well, Congress may let itself be used in this fashion, but Nevada doesn't necessarily have to be its victim. Unfortunately, some people see all this money floating around, and they get in line. No vote our commission has ever taken on the dump has been unanimous - every one has been five to two against it, and two members who are for it wonder about the rest of us. They think Nevada should deal with the Department of Energy, with the utilities; they recommend that we accept the dump and get what we can.

Our commission began recommending to the governor and the legislature certain actions to protect Nevada. Governor Miller has been terrific; and so have Senators Bryan and Reid, and Congressmen Bilbray and Vucanovich. The state legislature has enacted legislation that our commission proposed, virtually every county in the state has passed a resolution against the dump, and most (not all) elected officials have been opposed to it. We have a pretty strongly unified voice in Nevada. If we can sustain that unity, it will be very hard for the government to force this project on a state that just will not take it.

Nevada may be a wilderness, as Senator Johnson would have it, but there are a million people here who have a lot of pride, and we're not going to be patsies for the federal government; nor will we suffer for the mistakes that the utility companies have made over the years. . . .

[Sawyer, Grant; Hang Tough, University of Nevada Oral History Program, 1993, p214]

The key element to note about Sawyer's views is the strong strain of anti-big-business and anti-DOE populism that ties the argument together. This is at least as strong a motivation in Sawyer's opposition to the repository as the possible dangers of radiation. Ironically, if private industry had been allowed to pursue its own solution to the nuclear waste problem without Congressional intervention, Nevada might very well still have been chosen as a site for a repository. In that case, the state might have had even less input into the siting process than it presently enjoys.