When Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States, political insiders in the Nevada Democratic Party thought they had gone to heaven. Now they would be rid of Admiral James Watkins, Bush's head of the Department of Energy, hopefully to be replaced by someone who would staunchly oppose Yucca Mountain and nuclear energy in general.
The betting out of the box was that former Colorado Senator Timothy Wirth would take the position of Secretary of Energy. This was the smart bet considering Wirth's close ties to environmentalists and especially to the Safe Energy Communication Council. Wirth had also been a co-sponsor of Richard Bryan's ill fated Corporate Average Fuel Emissions bill, so Nevada's Senators and Governor Miller were sure that Wirth would be juiced into the position because of their collective clout with newly elected vice-president Al Gore. After all, Reid had been one of the first sponsors of Gore's aborted 1988 presidential campaign.
In December of 1992, Bill Clinton's choice of Hazel O'Leary as secretary of energy over the Green former senator Timothy Wirth sent chills up the spine of Nevda's congressional delegation. An editorial in the Review Journal stated the political situation tartly:
Nevada leaders (Democrats) promised us that a vote for Bill Clinton was a vote against the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository. Clinton, the Big Lie went, would be more sympathetic to the good fight than those big-business Republicans, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Remember these quotes?
- If he's elected, Clinton will "take another look" at plans to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Sen. Richard Bryan said last July.
- "Clinton was very attentive and very sympathetic with Nevada'sosition (on Yucca Mountain)," Bryan said in August after meeting with the Arkansas governor.
- Clinton's victory could give Nevadans more influence on the nuke waste issue, Bryan said Nov. 4. "We could wind up with a secretary of energy who does not believe the world has to glow in the dark to make progress on energy dependence."
- Clinton's campaign platform calling for a decreasing reliance on nuclear energy is a strong sign that Nevada will be treated more fairly on the Yucca Mountain issue, Gov. Bob Miller said last week.
But it was all fertilizer spread by opportunistic politicians and gullible Friends of Bill. [Las Vegas Review Journal, December 22, 1992, Opinion]
The Review Journal's characterization of local politician's statements promising better times under Clinton as a Big Lie was probably too severe. Nevada's powerful Democratic political machine no doubt believed Tim Wirth, a staunch opponent of nuclear energy, would be selected to head the Department of Energy.
The fact that Clinton picked Hazel O'Leary to head DOE was thus no less than a kick in the teeth to Nevada's top politicians, despite their best spin control to the contrary. Hazel Rollins O'Leary at the time of her nomination was Executive Vice President of Northern States Power Company (NSP) and was in the process of being promoted to President of NSP's Gas Utility. Northern States Power provides energy to five contiguous states in the northern Midwest, a fact made important because of its dependence on nuclear power. As O'Leary stated in favor of nuclear energy before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources March 31, 1992:
"NSP relies on the low cost environmentally sound production of nuclear power to meet 35% of the electrical energy needs of its customers." [Statement of Hazel O'Leary Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate March 31, 1992]
O'Leary went on to remark about the need for Yucca Mountain in her testimony to the Senate:
Some believe licensing reform alone is needed to encourage investment in new nuclear facilities. I believe they are wrong. If the waste issue is not resolved, there will be no new investment in nuclear power under present circumstances. It is not reasonable to assume responsible business people will risk billions of dollars to invest in new nuclear plants when there is no place to store spent fuel." [Statement of O'Leary to Senate, March 31, 1992]
Whatever Clinton's reasons were for choosing O'Leary over Wirth, it is clear that this represented an abrupt sea change in politics in the newly elected administration. During the campaign, Clinton had spoken of a need to phase out nuclear power, and his vice-president, Al Gore, has long been caught up in the search for a solar utopia (along with his friend Harry Reid).
The supposedly close ties of Harry Reid, Richard Bryan and Governor Bob Miller with president Bill Clinton and vice-president Al Gore should give the nation pause. After snubbing Nevada's loyal delegation, especially with the O'Leary appointment to head DOE, Clinton needed to regain their trust. In 1994, Clinton further antagonized the Nevada delegation by considering a sin tax on gambling, Nevada's lifeblood. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt also proposed large increases in mining taxes and grazig fees. The prickly question this raises is how large the political payoff will have to be to keep Nevada's politicians on board the Clinton juggernaut until 1996 and the next round of presidential elections? A trillion dollar solar-hydrogen project at the Nevada Test Site may be the unfortunate answer.
The O'Leary appointment also sent shock waves of a different sort through the pro-nuclear community. O'Leary was ostensibly on the side of the nuclear industry, a lone ally in a sea of environmentally activist Clintonites. However, O'Leary's appointment in many ways acted against the interests of the nuclear coalition, especially on the Yucca Mountain issue. So afraid were the trade lobbyists that O'Leary would be scuttled by the administration, that they gave O'Leary a free ride on a number of issues rather than rock the political boat. Because O'Leary didn't like the acrimonious debate generated by ANEC advertising in Nevada, numerous spots were cancelled and there was essentially no public relations campaign in 1993 and 1994. This meant the activists at the Nuclear Waste Project Office and in the anti-nuclear lobby took the propaganda field virtually unopposed.
A series of ads that would have shown DOE scientists explaining technical aspects of Yucca Mountain and inviting the public to tour the site never saw the light of day. The Secretary thought it would look like DOE was endorsing the repository. More troubling for the Yucca Mountain study was O'Leary's decision in late 1993 to make public past radiation tests conducted by the D.O.E. and its predecessors, some of which did not pass modern ethical standards for informed consent.
O'Leary's resurrection of the nuclear radiation victim story was in part a payoff to a number of Democratic constituencies, including Senators Bryan and Reid of Nevada. Actually, the story was already old:
A LONE VOICE IN THE NUCLEAR DEBATE
Massachusetts Dem Sounded Alarm In '86
Ed Markey knows what it's like to be a lone voice in the wilderness.
In 1986, his house energy subcommittee released a report detailing 31 U.S. government radiation tests on 695 Americans from the mid-1940s through the 1970's. It drew scant notice at a time the nation was rebuilding its military strength.
"Like casting seeds upon the pavement," recalls the Massachusetts Democrat. "The story dies after the first day."
But now - after disclosures of more nuclear tests from declassified files and a pledge from the White House to investigate - Markey is out front on an issue that has exploded into the national consciousness. [ USA Today, 1/11/94]
One contention was that the radiation tests had been conducted without the informed consent of the human "guinea pigs"and violated the Nuremberg Conventions. This resembles the arguments used by NWPO consultant and science philosopher Kristen Schrader-Freschette to paint Yucca Mountain as an illegal experiment conducted by the DOE at the expense of Nevadans. As old as the issue was and given the lack of solid evidence of harm (some of the victims lived into their eighties), the suspicion is that a large element of politics involved in O'Leary's revelations. Even O'Leary seemed somewhat afraid that the revelations would create a counterproductive reaction:
". . . I believe recent disclosures about this dark and narrow corner of our history will result in a full accounting to those wronged by the experiments, a more open and trustworthy government, and stronger ethical guidelines for today's research.
If I am right, our efforts to "come clean" with the American people will have had a positive effect.
If, however, a distrusting American public points to past government abuses as a reason to oppose medical research, the search for an AIDS vaccine, a cure for cancer or treatments for hundreds of other diseases could be set back terribly. [ USA Today, 2/8/1994, p 11A]
A number of environmentalists, notably NWPO consultant Marvin Resnikoff, have warned about minute levels of plutonium from Yucca Mountain. Yet, one of the tests conducted in the 1940's involved injection of plutonium into subjects:
The researchers believed that all 18 people had terminal illnesses - including Mousso and his Addison's disease - and wouldn't survive beyond 10 years, but the last of the group survived until 1991. Mousso survived until 1984, when he died at age 82; the funeral home called it a "natural death." [" People Injected With Plutonium Apparently Kept Tests Quiet", Las Vegas Review Journal, 2/8/94, p7A, Assoc. Press]
Thus, radiation testing revelations actually support the position that Yucca Mountain is unlikely to be dangerous to local populations, a least in respect to trace releases of plutonium. The political reason for the radiation victim story may well be more complex than a question of public health, as suggested in an L.A. Times editorial:
. . . the instant-doom day aspects of the scandal appear largely hyperbole. For years the environmental community has advanced the notion that even small amounts of radiation represent a mystical mega-danger of which society should live in utter dread. Why do they so vehemently warn against what is, at worst, a speculative threat? Because nuclear power plants cannot explode but can emit tiny amounts of radiation. Continuing public dread of even tiny levels of radiation is the enviros' main argument against nuclear power - which has many problems but which, on ecological grounds, may actually be good for society. [Easterbrook, Gregg; "News On Tests Not All Bad", Las Vegas Review Journal, 1/12/94, special to L.A. Times]
According to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, it appears O'Leary may have been led to resurrect the radiation victim story through the efforts of Dan Reicher of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the professional anti-nuclear activists to whom we have by now become accustomed. Nevertheless, O'Leary has shown remarkable resilience to the effort to circumvent her advocacy on nuclear issues (namely the attempt to create a Blue Ribbon Commission). Environmentalists and Nevada political leaders found little comfort in recent statements of the secretary:
Responding to questions from (Nevada Lt. Gov. Sue) Wagner, O'Leary said she will oppose an independent review of the department's work at Yucca Mountain if it would mean halting site studies. Last week, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and nine other senators asked President Clinton to appoint an independent group to review all the department's nuclear programs.
"I have to go forward with it," she said of the Yucca Mountain work. "I will throw my body in front of The White House or anybody who tries to stop site characterization.
"If the request (for review) came unattending that effort to stop the characterization, I would be strongly in favor of it, but I am not in favor of something that's used to simply stop the process" on studies that merely seek to determine Yucca Mountain's suitability as a repository.
"It doesn't do a bloody thing else," O'Leary said of the site characterization.
"I'm far more impassioned about this than I should be, but you have to understand why. I hear from 34 states," she said, referring to states where nuclear utilities are running out of storage for radioactive spent fuel rods. [ Las Vegas Review Journal, Friday, March 25, 1994, p 1B]