Washington Elite

The legislative road to constructing a national nuclear waste disposal policy has been long and torturous, pitting federal bureaucracies, local governments and citizen activists against the U.S. Congress. These efforts first produced a comprehensive policy in the form of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, followed by the 1987 Amendments Act known as "Screw Nevada." The next major revision in nuclear waste policy will be taken in 1995 when NWPA is again revisited to settle the issues of federal acceptance of nuclear waste in 1998, the probable designation of Nevada as a host for a monitored retrievable storage site and possible benefits for Nevada. Reviewing the history of the Washington elite who have shaped policy so far thus gives insights into the probable direction revisions will take in 1995.


The Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, proposed a plan for disposal of high-level and long-lived commercial nuclear fuel wastes in 1975 and 1976. The plan proposed six sites be built by the 1990s, based on the then projected needs of several hundred reactors in service. However, by mid 1977 with nuclear reactor orders declining and with President Carter's decision to defer reprocessing of nuclear fuel based in part on nuclear deterrence issues, the waste program began to receive an overhaul.

White House energy adviser James Schlesinger came to feel that the ERDA siting process was too wide spread and a magnet for un-needed political opposition. Colin Heath, then director of ERDA, in turn prepared a policy memorandum which limited the siting to six states with salt formations plus Hanford (basalt) and Yucca Mountain (tuff). The Hanford and Yucca Mountain sites already were seen to have some advantages over the salt sites: the plasticity of the salt effectively ruled out future retrievability of the waste compared to the hard rocks of Nevada and Washington and migration of brine created corrosive conditions for canisters .

The Interagency Review Group (IRG) was set up by then Secretary of Energy Schlesinger to review the current options. The group concluded the first repository could be built by the 1990s, but suggested that even using multiple natural and engineering barriers some uncertainty and risk of release of radionuclides would always remain. The IRG made a positive statement that the nuclear waste problem should not be left for future generations. President Carter first made a policy statement based on the IRG findings in February of 1980, however, his weakened political standing led to his policy suggestions being ignored. Nevertheless, Carter's existing policy became the de facto policy of the incoming Reagan administration.


The Nuclear Waste Policy Act grew out of efforts of the 96th and 97th Congresses between 1979 and 1982. The American Nuclear Energy Council was at the forefront in representing the industry's concern that interim storage be addressed and that geologic storage provided the best long term solution to the waste problem. The environmental lobby, spearheaded by Ralph Nader's Public Citizen and joined by the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and other Greens pushed their agenda through friendly members of Congress, notably Morris Udall of Arizona. The Department of Energy was eager for a bill because they believed this would take some of the pressure off their management of the siting process.

A number of issues confronted the Ninety-sixth Congress in its writing of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. One question was whether a moratorium on further licensing and operation of reactors would be imposed until the waste problem had been addressed. Senator Gary Hart of Colorado had proposed that continued use of nuclear power be subject to Nuclear regulatory Commission findings in 1985.

Another critical issue was the question of whether host state's would be given veto power over a siting decision, because an unlimited veto would have likely deadlocked the entire process. As a first compromise, a state's veto was to be overridden only if sustained by at least one house of Congress. Late in the process, under threat of a filibuster by Senator Proxmire, Congress approved a veto provision sponsored by Congressman Broyhill which require both houses of Congress to override a state's veto.

Other issues included the siting and integration of a Monitored Retrievable Storage facility with the geologic waste storage program, the creation of a nuclear waste fund to pay for research and development costs, a "horserace" process for studying parallel sites, Indian issues, host state compensation and a variety of subtle concerns. After significant compromises between the concerns of environmentalists (designed to halt the nuclear industry) and nuclear interests (perhaps overly eager to build a repository without the burden of environmental regulations) the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed December 20, 1982 and signed by President Reagan January 7,1983. Interestingly, the environmentalists deserted the bill as it reached its final conclusion despite having obtained significant concessions on environmental regulations and licensing.


Implementation of the parallel study requirements of the 1982 NWPA proved problematic because the cost of conducting nine studies simultaneously was cost prohibitive. After the sites were winnowed to three in 1984 (Deaf Smith, Texas; Yucca Mountain, Nevada; and Hanford, Washington) environmental opposition began to focus on these three sites. Intense lobbying efforts by environmental groups preceded the designation of Yucca Mountain as the sole site for study in the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. According to Caroline Petti, now of EPA but then a lobbyist for the National Nuclear waste Task Force, environmental opposition may have been doomed by the the 1987 designation of Yucca Mountain as the sole site because now the problem was Nevada's and national activists no longer saw a threat to their home states.

J. Bennett Johnston was the main architect of the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the "Screw Nevada" bill. The effect of this bill was to narrow the search for a nuclear repository from three sites (Deaf Smith, Texas; Hanford, Washington; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada) to Yucca Mountain alone. Had this bill only set Nevada aside as the site for a nuclear waste repository, it would certainly have deserved its nickname of Screw Nevada for its forced siting. However, concurrent amendments sponsored by Bennett Johnston contained provisions for compensation to Nevada to the tune of $50 to $100 million dollars per year, one-tenth the Nevada State budget.

In the Bush years, the most important national politicians to watch were J. Bennett Johnston (D. La.), Chairmen of the Senate Energy Committee, John Dingell, Congressman from Michigan and Admiral James Watkins (a former submariner with a Ph.D. in engineering) who was Secretary of Energy. The most important of Nevada's national politicians was of course then Governor Richard Bryan, who may owe his Senate seat to previous Senator Chic Hecht's waffling on the 1987 Amendments.. In contrast, Nevada's three other representatives, Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Jim Bilbray and Rep. Barbara Vucanovich have opposed Yucca Mountain but seem to be open to suggestion given the possibility of reasonable political favors in return.

Bryan's three colleagues have rarely ventured out front on the anti-Yucca Mountain side. Bryan, on the other hand, has been a powder keg, repeatedly antagonizing Bennett Johnson and John Dingell, two of the most powerful Congressmen in Washington D.C. Harry Reid has taken a different path courting Bennett Johnston's friendship (though this is not something Reid publicized to the extent he does his friendship with Al Gore). Yet, for better or worse, Bryan seems to be likely to act as the crucial linchpin in Nevada's official position towards Yucca Mountain well into the future.


Where the Washington story next played out most conspicuously was in the passage of the Energy Bill of 1992. Among the objectives of this omnibus bill was the streamlining of the process for licensing nuclear reactors and provisions for accelerating the Yucca Mountain project. Obviously, there was a certain pressure to pass this bill before the rapidly dying embers of the Bush presidency totally faded. Senator Bryan bitterly opposed the 1992 Energy Bill, going so far as to attempt to filibuster the act. In the end, Bryan was defeated 86 to 4.

A different approach towards nuclear waste and compensation had been taken in New Mexico by Senator DeConcini who helped draft legislation that emphasized the role of New Mexico's university system in technical oversight and especially in doing socioeconomic impact assessment. While socioeconomic studies done within a state's academic community may carry their own political baggage, at least that baggage is subject to the influence of local political and social currents. As described previously, Senator Bryan attempted to scuttle the benefits for New Mexico as compensation for WIPP at the end of the 1992 session. This may in part have been in retaliation for having his filibuster of the 1992 Energy Bill defeated, and may also have been an attempt to hide grants of compensation to New Mexico from Nevada voters. Bryan had made a continual point within Nevada that no compensation or benefits could be expected, even though Senator Bennett Johnston had made a commitment to a schedule of $50 and $100 million dollar payments parallel to the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendments. Bryan has antagonized Johnston, Dingell and others with his obstruction of the 1987 Amendments Act to the extent that Johnston has been heard to claim that he will never again unilaterally offer benefits to Nevada.


The next revision of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is slated for early 1995 as a response to certain failings of the earlier legislation. Program delays in bringing Yucca Mountain on-line leave the nuclear industry without a site to begin storage of spent fuel, putting pressure on present on-site storage programs.. NWPA contractually commits the federal government to accepting waste by 1998. Consequently, the battlefield for 1995 will certainly be the siting of a temporary Monitored Retrievable Storage facility to take up the program slack until Yucca Mountain can be licensed.

The likely site for a monitored retrievable storage site is at the Nevada Test Site, despite earlier legislation in NWPA disqualifying the host state of the repository from siting of a monitored retrievable storage site. The early betting is that an MRS facility will be forced on Nevada ads a practical solution despite the earlier legislation.

Unfortunately, Nevada's residents were kept ignorant of this upcoming "Screw Nevada II" bill in the 1994 elections because of a dedicated campaign of silence, referred to as "Nuke Lite'. Part of this zone of silence was enforced by administration officials at least as high as Hazel O'Leary, who made it known to their public relations staff in Nevada that nuclear issues were to be deemphasized in 1994.