Senator Harry Reid
Unlike his compatriot in the senate, Harry Reid long ago gave up the desire to fight to the death over any political issue, including Yucca Mountain. Richard Bryan could joust with windmills all he wanted, but Reid has always followed the polls where the votes are.
Of course, poll following can lead to poor legislation, exemplified when Reid jumped on the Alar pesticide bandwagon and helped lead the scare campaign against apples. The Natural Resources Defense Council decided in 1989 to demonize apples by claiming school children were being given carcinogens in the form of Alar, a preserving agent that was used to prolong the shelf life of fruits. After the scare hit the television show, 60 Minutes, it was suddenly politically correct to be an apple scaremongerer. After sniffing the political winds, Reid began denouncing Alar to the press, even cosponsoring a bill to have Alar banned.
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid was among a bipartisan group of senators who introduced legislation Wednesday to ban the apple ripening agent Alar. . . The bill would ban the sale and use of Alar, also known as daminozide, on domestic and imported food products.
"We should not feel sorry for Uniroyal," Reid said, saying the sole manufacturer of Alar can continue to sell the product for use on non-food products such as flowers.
[ Las Vegas Sun (UPI) 1989]
The only problem was, Alar wasn't dangerous and the economic losses to the apple industry because of the reaction of activists like Reid rose to more than $150 million. Actually, Alar is a carcinogen, just as is nearly every other chemical at some dose, but apples already contain a number of natural carcinogens more potent than Alar. Reid's populist inclination to take sides on environmental issues in search of votes is not thus benign, but has potentially devastating economic side effects.
So what do apples, Alar, Harry Reid and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have to do with Yucca Mountain? The NRDC, key to the Alar scare campaign, is one of the organizations opposing Yucca Mountain, specifically under the umbrella of the Safe Energy Communication Council. The NRDC is also an active opponent of the Nevada Test Site, having at one time helped Charles Archambeau with a million dollar contract to study seismic events from nuclear weapons testing. Archambeau's company, Technology Resource Assessment Corporation, is now the recipient of a $1.3 million, non-competitive contract issued without Request-For-Proposal by Bob Loux and NWPO.
Robert Pollard of the NRDC is a long time anti-nuclear activist with ties to Marvin Resnikoff and Ralph Nader's groups and shows up frequently at various nuclear hearings. These relationships demonstrate that opposition to Yucca Mountain is not an isolated grass roots movement, but part of a larger activist environmental movement spearheaded by professional alarmists such as those at the NRDC.
The tenacious hold of the Washington based apocalyptic environmental groups over Nevada's Senators very much affects the political resolution of Yucca Mountain. Harry Reid was caught up in the Alar issue by following the lead of the NRDC. Washington based environmental groups affiliated with the Safe Energy Communication Council, influenced Richard Bryan's proposed Corporate Average Fuel Emission bill and certainly fueled his opposition to Yucca Mountain. Both Reid and Bryan are lawyers lacking technical expertise to decide on their own what constitutes legitimate environmental threats. Without a scientific education, Reid and Bryan were forced to rely on other lawyers and non-technicians among the Green movement for critical analysis of environmental hazards. Consequently, the hazards Reid and Bryan attack (including Yucca Mountain) have often been exagerated and their solutions utopian.
The largest perceived hazard in Nevada has for a long time been Yucca Mountain. As it became clear to Reid that the Nevada Test Site would be phased out, taking with it many jobs, the senator was forced to scramble to show concern for his constituents by replacing the lost revenues. Bryan had locked Reid into the position of refusing all benefits for Yucca Mountain, leaving little room to maneuver as the 1992 senatorial election approached (Reid need not have worried, his Republican challenger, Demar Dahl, was politically inept). From a basket of dubious make-work suggestions for revitalizing the Test Site, Reid chose to champion a solar solution resurrected by the Green movement. The magical idea was that the Nevada Test Site could be transformed into a giant solar farm and Nevada could be at the forefront of a new age of renewable energy.
During 1992 Harry Reid suggested alternative uses for the Nevada Test Site:
"His (Reid's) favorite is a hydrogen research center that he said "could revolutionize the world."
"I've talked to (Democratic vice-presidential candidate) Al Gore about this. We know it works. This could be one of the biggest programs in the history of the country." The program, aimed at producing hydrogen fuel that could power most vehicles that now rely on dwindling petroleum supplies, ties in with Nevada's vast potential for solar energy.
Rows of solar power dishes, much like satellite television dishes, would line barren areas at the test site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Using electricity that could be generated from the dishes, water could be electrolyzed, splitting its components -- hydrogen and oxygen -- to draw off hydrogen, a clean burning fuel.
So where does Nevada get the water for the hydrogen?
"Maps have been drawn up to get water from the ocean up here," Reid said.
"We know it works," he said about hydrogen production process. "They can produce enough solar energy at the test site for the world using solar energy. It is so vitally important for our country."[Review Journal, September 14, 1992]
A small problem with Harry Reid's solar-hydrogen plan is that we do not know hydrogen technology works, despite Al Gore's claim. Among the many problems:
1) There is a process called hydrogen-embrittlement which causes pipelines and storage tanks for hydrogen to crack. Also, although hydrogen has a high energy content per mass, it has a low energy content per volume, making it bulky, difficult to store and hard to use. Making a hydrogen energy system prototype is consequently far removed from making the whole country run on hydrogen technology.
2) The environmental impact on Nevada would be huge, much greater than Yucca Mountain. Solar projects are extremely resource intensive and making the Nevada Test Site a solar site would be similar in effort to paving 250 square miles of the earth's surface with concrete. The surface ecology of the Nevada Test Site would be totally ruined by a solar project, much more so than even from the nuclear testing done there.
3) Millions of tons of materials would need to be mined to provide the necessary aluminum, concrete (cement and gravel), copper wires, piping, conduits, support structures, etc. necessary to build a hydrogen solar project. Thus, the national environmental impact is significant.
4) Many of the mirror silvering compounds, anticorrosion paints, lubricants, etc. are toxic. On a scale this large, the chemical pollution would be substantial.
5) The mirrors would create a microclimate by changing the albedo (reflectiveness) of the earth's surface.
6) Hydrogen tanker trucks are dangerously explosive (unlike trucks carrying radioactive waste). There would be large numbers of these tankers on Nevada's roads.
7) Large quantities of water would be needed. If derived from salt water, it would require expensive pumping stations and huge mountains of sea salt would need to be disposed of. If local water was used, it would cut into the already parched allotments for Nevada development. This would dwarf the socioeconomic impact of Yucca Mountain.
8) Disruption of the environment from construction could be substantial due to dust.
9) Desert tortoises would be displaced. The desert tortoise is endangered, and such a large solar facility would threaten their habitat.
10) Radioactive soils left over from bomb testing at the Nevada Test Site would be disrupted. This might cause a greater radiation danger than from Yucca Mountain.
11) Solar is relatively low-tech. Most jobs created would be low tech, like washing mirrors. For the whole site to be economical, wages would need to verge on stoop-labor.
12) There is no guarantee that the federal government will compensate Nevada for socioeconomic impacts.
13) Last but not least, this solar project is incredibly expensive, requiring hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars in investment
Reid and Bryan had failed to prepare for the closing of the Nevada Test Site and had opposed benefits from Yucca Mountain. Reid tried to transform this fiasco into a political plus using the lure of solar energy jobs, a policy position later adopted by Bryan in the 1994 election campaign. In a Review Journal article, FUEL COULD BRIGHTEN TEST SITE OUTLOOK, December 20, 1992, Reid was taken to task for his motives:
Reid bristles at the suggestion his enthusiasm for hydrogen fuel is a desperate attempt to find another use for the test site so it will not be closed.
On June 19, Reid introduced a $550 million bill aimed at providing retraining and job search services for test site employees who lose their jobs. The bill went nowhere. Some critics said Reid, who was running for reelection, had stubbornly believed there would not be a nuclear testing moratorium and had acted too late.
"That's just not true," Reid said. "For lack of a better word, I've been a leader in developing alternate uses at the test site. Everybody knows that." [Las Vegas Review Journal, "Fuel Could Brighten Test Site Outlook", December 20, 1992
Actually, everybody does not know that, Reid and Bryan had long ignored the possible closing of the Nevada Test Site and the potentially devastating impact. One of the prime alternative uses for the test site and its workers is Yucca Mountain and associated nuclear technologies, not solar energy, but Reid has steadfastly opposed this option. As for the feasibility of hydrogen technology, we quote from the Review Journal Article:
Dr. Harry Linden of the Illinois Institute of Technology, who serves on a technical advisory panel to the Energy Department, said the consensus in the scientific community is that hydrogen fuel is a feasible energy source.
"The big argument is whether it's time to get our feet wet as far as investment is concerned," Linden said. "Some scientists say we should begin investing in hydrogen fuel now. I am among those who think we can wait."
Linden said natural gas, which is much cheaper than hydrogen, probably will be the primary energy source for the near future. But he said hydrogen's time will come "within the next 50 to 100 years." [Las Vegas Review Journal, December 20, 1992]
The relatively long time horizon for hydrogen technology development makes prospects for federal political support unlikely. Reid further damaged his credibility by promoting the unproven solar-hydrogen system on the basis of newly elected vice-president Al Gore's expertise:
"We know it works," Reid said. "We sent a man to the moon with hydrogen fuel. . . ."
Reid's trump card may be his close relationship to Vice President Al Gore, who seems certain to be the Clinton administration's point man on environmental issues. Reid said he has talked to Gore twice about the hydrogen fuel concept, once before the election and once after.
"He's interested, and his science adviser has been briefed by Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, EG&G and our staff," Reid said. [Las Vegas Review Journal, December 20, 1992]
Citing Al Gore, a former journalist, divinity student and politician as an expert in hydrogen energy technology is not particularly confidence inspiring. Moreover, Reid conveniently forgot to give the consumer (i.e., the taxpayers) the tab for this solar-hydrogen utopia -- three or four trillion dollars!
With the Clinton administration and Al Gore pushing environmental awareness, the country may very well see a return to the sorts of energy policies developed during the Carter administration when many of the same Green policy activists were last in power. Projects begun in the Carter years like synfuels and the windmills of Altamont, California have been allowed to quietly die over the last few years because they simply weren't cost effective. Unfortunately, solar projects may now have nine lives and be resurrected as political payoff to senators like Reid as a quid pro quo for Yucca Mountain.
The enlightened choice of Hazel O'Leary as head of the Department of Energy may yet set a rational course for national energy policy. This may not change the political situation in Nevada, for Harry Reid seems likely to continue to support solar technologies to appease Green special interests. Yet, sentiment seems to be breaking towards negotiating for benefits and Reid's political instincts may be to follow this new current.