Too Dumb to Meter, Part 12

22. The Jimmy, Ron, and Mo Show

Its reputation in tatters from the Lyons fiasco, the Atomic Energy Commission responded with classic bureaucratic behavior, described best by academic and satirist James H. Boren: “When in doubt, mumble; when in trouble, delegate; when in charge, ponder.”

The commission mounted a literal waste holding action, focused on what new commission waste czar Frank Pittman viewed as a prudent approach to the unsolved and increasingly politicized problem. Pittman advised the commission that, for the short term, the best course of action was to keep the wastes safe in above-ground storage, where technicians could monitor it, and where it could be retrieved once a long-term solution came to pass. As to what the long-term solution would be, Pittman basically had no clue. He suggested that the AEC look at a variety of disposal options to be tested before making a final choice of the form of geologic disposal.

Pittman’s approach appealed to the pragmatic new AEC chairman, James Schlesinger, the Nixon administration’s replacement of Glenn Seaborg, who had served for a decade at the head of the agency. Schlesinger served at the AEC for less than two years, although that was far from his last encounter with nuclear waste and nuclear power issues.

As the AEC temporized on radioactive waste, the political ground was shifting under the AEC’s foundation. Long before the commission was able to come up with a new strategy for disposal of its nuclear detritus, the commission itself ceased to exist. At the same time, the commission’s assumption that civilian nuclear wastes would be reprocessed for their plutonium to be used in a mixture with slightly-enriched uranium in future civilian reactors also turned to sand.

The golden age of civilian nuclear power that the AEC and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had long anticipated had only a very short run. By 1974, the long pipeline of nuclear plants began emptying. Plants on order and under construction began falling by the wayside, derailed by a slow economy, rising interest rates, political opposition, poor construction, and declining performance of existing plants. The last order for a new plant came in 1978, and that was illusory.

The blossoming anti-nuclear movement of the mid-1970s challenged the fundamentals of atomic energy in the United States, including the engine of nuclear power, the AEC. Critics charged that it made no sense for the government to combine promotion of the technology and its regulation in the same agency. The result, the critics correctly observed, was that regulation became the stepchild to the nuclear boomers in the AEC. Even many in the industry acknowledged that in the AEC, the regulators were second-class citizens. In 1974, Congress acknowledged that it was time to formally bury the offspring of the Manhattan Project (although the Manhattan Project culture survives to this day). President Gerald Ford on October 11, 1974, signed the Energy Reorganization Act, abolishing the AEC. In its place, Congress created two separate federal agencies. The Energy Research and Development Administration (which became the foundation for the Department of Energy in the Carter administration) took over the promotional and research and development aspects of the AEC, along with the AEC’s nuclear weapons program. A five-member U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission was charged with the task of being an independent and unbiased regulator of civilian nuclear power and use of the atom. Jurisdiction over nuclear waste, both military and civilian, was divided and unclear. Equally murky was the relationship between the two nuclear agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, created in the Nixon administration just four years earlier.

During the 1976 presidential campaign, energy in general and nuclear reprocessing specifically became an issue, with the Democratic candidate, Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, proclaiming that he would end the use of the fuel processing technology. Reprocessing, he told a United Nations energy conference, represented too easy a path for terrorists and rogue nations to obtain nuclear weapons. He pledged to put U.S. reprocessing on hold if he were elected.

President Ford in the summer of 1976 ordered a full-fledged review of U.S. nuclear policy, headed by Bob Fri, deputy administrator at ERDA, and coordinated by Glenn Schleede, a former AEC staffer by then on the White House staff. As a result of that work, on October 28, 1976, days before the election, Ford announced an indefinite moratorium on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

When Carter won the election, reprocessing in the United States died, and the focus of the still-inchoate nuclear waste policy changed from solidifying liquid wastes to dealing with the hot, radioactive spent fuel rods from civilian nuclear power plants. For the utilities operating nuclear plants, this caused a major problem. Their spent fuel pools, which temporarily housed used fuel underwater as it awaited the expected transfer to reprocessing plants, now became de facto permanent storage sites.

Carter’s energy advisor, former AEC chairman Jim Schlesinger, retained the enthusiasm for monitored retrievable storage (MRS) that he developed at the AEC. Others disagreed, including some key officials at the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC’s William Bishop complained that above-ground storage put the commission “in the logically awkward position of being asked to license reactors that will produce wastes without assurance that the wastes can and will be disposed of safely.” Nuclear utilities didn’t much care about the final disposal of the spent fuel, as long as they could get it out of their glowing storage pools and off their books. Environmental groups, distrustful of Schlesinger and the industry, saw MRS as a way to preserve the reprocessing option, and wanted a final, geological burial site.

Many in the business of designing and building nuclear technology were unwilling to write off reprocessing. They were convinced that uranium was and would remain a limited resource, and that the next generation of nuclear power technology would be breeder reactors. Breeders require reprocessing to separate the plutonium fuel created by the operation of the reactors. So this group favored keeping the spent fuel, and its inventory of future fuel, available for future use.

The Carter administration, after an extensive interagency review process, offered what it saw as a compromise solution that came to be called away from reactor (AFR) storage. The federal government would take title to the waste from the utilities in return for a one-time fee. The energy department would then store the spent fuel rods in a temporary site— unlike the permanent site envisioned in the MRS concept—while the government developed a permanent, underground nuclear cemetery. The Carter plan envisioned a program to test and evaluate several geological sites for a final repository for both civilian and military waste, avoiding the rush to find a solution that sunk the Lyons enterprise.

Time was rapidly running out on the Carter administration, which was widely seen as a likely one-term presidency. By the time the Carter White House came out with its full views on nuclear waste in late 1979, Congress had already taken control of the action. The nation’s next episode of nuclear waste frustration would start at the legislative end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Science reporter Luther Carter summarized this stage: “The recommendations by President Carter, coming in his last year in office when Carter was in a losing struggle for political survival, were given no priority and were not pushed by the administration on Capitol Hill. But in their emphasis on deep geological isolation as the first order of business and on investigating several potential repository sites thoroughly and then picking the best of them, Carter’s recommendations did influence the legislation that eventually emerged.”

The Carter legislative waste cotillion began in 1980, the final year of the Ninety-sixth Congress and the presidential election year. During 1980, both the House and the Senate passed nuclear waste bills, but a conference committee attempting to reconcile the two measures failed, in part because Congress was addressing other, higher-profile energy legislation. The 1980 waste bill foundered on issues that would form the crux of the debate on the bill that eventually emerged from Congress in the Ninety-seventh Congress. The Senate bill, largely written by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, included provisions for both MRS and interim above-ground AFR storage. The House bill, a product of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, included neither Senate provision, but mandated permanent underground disposal, absent in the Senate bill.

Ronald Reagan easily defeated Carter in the 1980 election, taking office on January 21, 1981, and bringing an expressed interest in revitalizing nuclear power. The nuclear industry was demoralized by public opposition that was fed by the 1979 reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island, the still faltering economy, and the perception that there was no solution to the growing inventory of nuclear waste building up at the nation’s nuclear power plant sites.

By 1982, utilities had cancelled seventy-seven reactor orders. Another eighteen would fall in 1982, fourteen more in 1983, and again fourteen in 1984. Joe Palladino, the Penn State nuclear veteran whom Reagan named to head the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1981, told Science magazine’s Carter in the summer of 1982, “If Congress passes the waste bill—that very much increases the confidence on the part of a number of the commissioners.”

The Reagan landslide also brought a large number of Republican lawmakers to Washington. The GOP took control of the Senate by a 53–46 margin, the first time since 1954 that the Republicans had controlled either branch of Congress. Tennessee’s Howard Baker, a nuclear enthusiast, replaced coal-state icon Robert Byrd of West Virginia as Senate Majority Leader. Republicans gained thirty-four seats in the House of Representatives in the 1980 election, but that was not nearly enough to oust the Democrats from control. The Democrats controlled the House 243–192, and Tip O’Neil of Massachusetts remained Speaker of the House. Most important for the story of nuclear waste legislation, Rep. Morris Udall, a staunch liberal and environmentalist from Tucson, Arizona, brother of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, remained chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee.

While the White House professed great interest in passing waste legislation, the Reagan administration didn’t play much of a role in the debate over the 1982 legislation, preferring to let its forces in Congress do the heavy political lifting. That was largely because the issue didn’t matter very much to the major players in the White House, including the president. They were focused on more important issues, including the existential struggle with the Soviet Union.

With decontrol of federal oil prices now fully in place under Reagan (having begun under Carter), oil prices were falling dramatically, gasoline prices were following, and energy was quickly receding from the political agenda. The Energy Department, created with much fanfare in the Carter administration, had proved to be a largely irrelevant institution. Reagan’s first energy secretary, Jim Edwards, was a former South Carolina dentist and accidental politician who served one term as Republican governor in the Palmetto State. His most memorable contribution at DOE was his comment, not long into his sole year at the Forrestal Building, “I can’t wait to get my hands back in spit.”

The Reagan administration in October 1981 issued what it billed as a major policy statement on nuclear power. Reagan was elsewhere occupied, and Edwards delivered the address—and the subliminal message that the White House really didn’t give a damn about nuclear power. The message “repealed” the Carter ban on reprocessing, with no tangible results, and called on DOE and the industry to solve the nuclear waste conundrum— political humbug.

The nuclear waste legislative debate kicked off in the Senate, where Idaho’s Jim McClure was the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. McClure was a dedicated advocate of all things nuclear. He worked closely with the leading Democrat on the committee, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, another dedicated advocate of all things nuclear, who was particularly interested in assuring that the waste would not end up stored in the extensive salt deposits in his home state. McClure also coordinated his legislative efforts with Sen. Alan K. Simpson, the Wyoming Republican and nuclear agnostic, most interested in advancing the interests of Wyoming uranium mining companies. Simpson chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Getting legislation through the Senate was relatively straightforward. The energy committee has never been a locus of partisan or ideological contention. It has always been dominated by energy interests; most of the legislation it has dealt with over the years has involved parceling out provisions and conditions aimed at the economic interests of its members. For many years, service on the committee was much in demand among senators of both parties in election years, as its ties to energy industry interests have yielded generous campaign contributions.

A major legislative hang-up in the Senate was homeland security—that is, the Senators wanted legislative assurances that their homelands would not be burdened with disposing of the waste. Stealing from a comment Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) once made about taxes, the attitude of the senators about nuclear waste was, “Don’t dump it on you; don’t dump it on me. Dump it on the guy behind the tree.”

The Senate legislation finessed the issue of where the waste would be dumped by providing for two final sites, potentially spreading the pain so that no one state could say it was being singled out for the short, radioactive straw. The West would get the first site, which the legislators expected would be sited in salt or stable volcanic rock. Many observers also expected that the first site would be located on land the federal government already owned, such as at Hanford or on the Nevada Test Site. The East or upper Midwest would get the black spot for a second dump, probably located in granite and on private land.

The Senate bill also contained provisions for both MRS and AFR storage, at Johnston’s insistence. This provided further political insulation against storing the waste in Louisiana, even though many technical experts still believed salt represented the best storage medium—the problems in Kansas notwithstanding. The final Senate bill, passed in April 1982 by a 69–9 vote, provided a mechanism for a state or Indian tribe to object to siting of the waste dump. The aggrieved party could file a petition with Congress that would trigger a vote. If either the House or the Senate agreed with the state or tribe, the veto would stand.

The Senate bill also contained a funding mechanism for the waste program. Nuclear utilities—that is, their customers—would pay a fee of a mill (a tenth of a penny) for each kilowatt-hour of nuclear generation, or about $5 million per reactor each year, into a special fund to be used for the waste program. Along with the fee, the legislation provided for an aggressive schedule, one that many experts found far too optimistic. DOE would characterize at least three geological sites and recommend one for the first repository by January 1, 1986. DOE would recommend a second site by January 1, 1989. The NRC would be required to rule on a DOE license application for the first site by the end of 1989 and the second by the end of 1992. The federal government would take title to the utility spent fuel by the end of 1998. None of the dates were remotely realistic.

The real contention on waste legislation came in the House, where the industry and its Republican allies had considerably less political traction. At the time the Senate passed its bill in the spring of 1982, the House legislation was mired in committee hearings and markups. Four House committees had significant jurisdiction—Morris Udall’s Interior committee, John Dingell’s Energy committee, the Science committee, and the Armed Services committee. The Rules committee, under the direction of Missouri liberal Democrat Richard Bolling, would have to tease out the jurisdictional tangle before the House could vote on a final bill.

By fall, with the congressional clock ticking down on the Ninety-seventh Congress, the House appeared deadlocked. It was up to Bolling to break the legislative logjam. Bolling told Luther Carter, covering the bill for Science, that he held both the environmental community and the industry to blame for the impasse. “The environmentalists want it perfect and would like to kill nuclear power,” Bolling said. “The industry wants what will serve the interests of the stockholders, and to hell with everything else.” Bolling turned to Udall, a lanky, funny, self-deprecating former pro basketball player and lapsed Mormon, a beloved figure in the House, to work a deal.

Udall soon got together with Dingell and his relevant subcommittee chairman Richard Ottinger, a New York liberal and environmentalist, then with the House Republicans, reaching a preliminary compromise. Udall’s approach adopted the spread-the-pain strategy of the Senate legislation, proposing sequential searches for two sites, starting in the West and following with a second repository in the East or Midwest. The negotiators agreed to a series of new provisions that would give the states more options to protect themselves from the DOE dump, along with provisions for the MRS and AFR storage as a backstop. By late September, Bolling’s Rules committee cleared a compromise bill—H.R. 7187—for floor action sometime that fall.

But the environmental groups, whom Udall and Dingell thought had been bought off with improved state veto provisions and additional language on environmental review of candidate sites, jumped off the legislative ship. In late November, the enviros notified the House leadership that they would oppose the compromise bill. Their main objections were to the above-ground options, which they saw as undermining their goal of geological disposal.

With time running out—Congress had to adjourn by the end of the year or start all over again with a fresh Congress—the environmental groups were now able to largely drive the process. During the final House negotiations, two savvy environmental lobbyists, Brooks Yeager for the Sierra Club and David Berick for the Environmental Policy Institute, worked a range of House Democrats to plant what they described during the closing days of the Congress as “time bombs” in the legislation.

The House took up the waste bill for final floor passage on November 29, 1982. It passed by voice vote after three days of debate. The major amendment the House adopted on the floor came from Udall, as a sop to the environmentalists. It stretched out the schedule for a DOE study of MRS to five years from the two years in the legislation and one year in the Senate bill. The House legislation also limited the terms for temporary AFR storage. The House also rejected an absolute veto by a state or Indian tribe, keeping language that tracked the Senate’s state veto. House passage set the stage for a frenzied House-Senate conference committee that largely worked behind the scenes as 1983 approached. The conferees largely split the differences between the two bills, as most House-Senate conference committees do. DOE would study five candidate sites, recommending three to the president for a first-round selection for characterization by January 1, 1985. The president would pick the finalist by March 31, 1987, and the NRC would have three years to license the site.

In the meantime, DOE would sift through another five sites, recommending three to the president for a second dump by July 1, 1989, with the president’s pick coming by March 31, 1990. DOE would take possession of the spent fuel by December 31, 1998. The program would be funded by the mill per kilowatt-hour fee. The compromise contained authorization for a temporary above-ground, monitored storage site, but that would have to be separately authorized by Congress.

A filibuster threat by Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire proved to be the only stumbling block. Wisconsin housed a candidate site. Proxmire offered an amendment requiring both houses of Congress to act to overturn a state or Indian tribe veto, which won the support of governors from New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Washington. Fearing the Proxmire talk-a-thon, the conferees accepted the amendment. The Senate approved the final bill by voice vote on December 20, 1982. The House followed with a 256–32 vote hours later. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act became law.

For the first time, the United States had a formal nuclear waste disposal policy, focused on geological disposal. The question became whether the new law would work. It didn’t take long to discover that the answer was no.

The most perceptive assessment came from Eliot Marshall, another Science reporter, who wrote, “A bill like this would have to be considered only a hesitant first try at solving the nuclear waste problem. It deals with none of the technical disputes and leaves the highly difficult task of site selection to the bureaucracy.”

23. Screw Nevada and Nevada Will Screw You

John Stewart Herrington was an unlikely energy secretary, at least as unlikely as dentist Jim Edwards, the Reagan administration’s first energy chief.

A short, pugnacious former Golden Gloves boxer, motorcyclist, and erstwhile Marine lieutenant, Herrington came to Washington from a job as a California business lawyer with two aims: to further the programs of Ronald Reagan and advance the future of the Republican party. A 1983 New York Times profile characterized him as a “two hundred–proof Reaganite.” Herrington, a Los Angeles native born in 1939, graduated from law school at the University of California at Berkeley’s Hastings Law School in 1964 and in 1966 became a deputy district attorney for Ventura County. He also became a volunteer precinct organizer in Ronald Reagan’s successful 1966 gubernatorial campaign. His ardor for the former actor never waned.

When Reagan was elected president in 1980, he brought Herrington, who had served as an advance man during the campaign, with him to Washington as assistant Navy secretary in charge of manpower. Two years later, as the administration began thinking about the 1984 reelection campaign, Herrington moved to the West Wing of the White House, as presidential personnel director and troubleshooter.

In early 1985, with the reelection campaign successfully behind him, Reagan announced a major cabinet shakeup. Energy Secretary Don Hodel, who was an energy expert, was moved back to the Interior Department, succeeding William Clark as secretary. Hodel had come to the Reagan administration as second in command at Interior to the controversial James Watt. Reagan named Herrington, who had no energy experience whatsoever, to succeed Hodel at the energy agency.

The nomination was a surprise. Brooks Yeager, the Washington lobbyist for the Sierra Club, who had been influential during the passage of the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, proclaimed, “The guy is a cipher. As far as we can find out, he doesn’t have the remotest qualifications or background in energy management.” That was not an overstatement.

At his Senate confirmation hearing before a friendly, Republican dominated energy committee, Herrington deflected substantive questions about energy policy and energy issues. Many of the tougher shots were thrown by committee Democrats using the hearing to warn the nominee that they knew a heck of a lot more than he did and they would be testing his sure-footedness at the agency.

As Herrington settled into his expansive digs at 1000 Independence Avenue, his agency began the process of implementing the new waste law. That process rested on a series of hearings aimed at winnowing down the first-round candidate sites into the three the agency was required to present to the president in two years.

The hearings were a warning that the department was in serious trouble. In a scholarly article in 2000, American University political scientist James Thurber noted the “public dissatisfaction that existed with the [new waste law’s] implementation.” Thurber observed that as the first series of public hearings began, “the scope of the conflict expanded over the nuclear waste issue as NIMBY sentiment spread. The wider the conflict, the less influence the congressional nuclear power advocacy committees and the DOE had over the outcome of nuclear waste policy.”

Thurber added, “The DOE’s handling of the public hearings process worsened the situation. DOE personnel believed in an organizational culture and norms that ignored politics and refused to discuss issues except in the technical jargon of the engineering profession. To the DOE, site selection was not political but technical. The DOE held hearings as mandated by [the waste law], but its attitude toward the hearings and the ways in which it responded to the public made its political problems worse.”

The DOE grunts weren’t political. John Herrington was political to the bone. And the politics of the impending decisions on selecting a waste dump were politically radioactive. The first-round choice was the least of the problems. The three sites that looked most promising were in Deaf Smith County, Texas, at the Hanford nuclear weapons site, and at Yucca Mountain on the Nevada Test Site. Most careful observers expected either Hanford or Yucca Mountain as the choice, as both were located on federal land. The smart money was betting on Yucca Mountain, as Washington and Oregon both had incumbent Republican Senators up for reelection (Slade Gorton in Washington and Bob Packwood in Oregon). Nevada was familiar with the nuclear enterprise and was politically impotent in Washington. The state’s senior senator, Reagan’s good friend Paul Laxalt, was retiring, and former Democratic member of the House turned Republican Jim Santini was expected to fill his seat in the Senate. Whoever the Nevadans elected would be a powerless freshman.

Herrington was deeply concerned about the 1986 elections, as the Democrats were poised to make solid gains typical of non-presidential election years. The GOP had gained control of the Senate in the 1980 elections and held on in 1982 and 1984. But they had a number of contested races coming in 1986, many in eastern and mid-western states that would be candidates for the second nuclear waste dump.

In a shocking announcement on May 28, 1986, Herrington abruptly dumped the second round. He announced that the three expected sites in Texas, Washington, and Nevada would go to the president for a final choice. The seventeen states that were facing the honor of hosting the second site would be spared as Herrington put the process on bureaucratic ice. Nuclear reactors were not being built at the pace expected, he said, so there was no urgency to find a second repository. “Based on the progress we have made toward selecting a first repository site,” Herrington said at a Washington press conference, “I have reassessed the timing of the department’s activities toward identification of candidates for a second repository, and I have decided to postpone indefinitely plans for any site-specific work.”

Herrington’s announcement amounted to a death sentence for the 1982 law, exposing its fatal flaw. Spreading the pain did not result in a sense of shared sacrifice, but simply increased the political stakes in the siting decision. The “time bombs” hidden in the law exploded with the first attempt to implement this flawed approach to an intractable problem. Political scientist Thurber commented that as the first real deadline approached, “outcry was so loud that for many in Congress, opposition to the DOE’s search for a repository had become a political necessity and few legislators were willing to risk their careers” on the waste program.

Shortly after Herrington’s announcement, Mo Udall commented, “The program is in ruins and our goal of siting a repository seems further away than ever.” He was right.

Immediately after Herrington’s announcement, the first-round states of Texas, Washington, and Nevada sued. In Texas, where the potential repository was on private land, state officials refused to issue a permit necessary to move forward with site characterization.

That fall, Congress dramatically cut funding for the waste program. Luther Carter observed, “The irony was that while stopping the second round was probably politically inevitable, this decision made the already bad problems of the first round even worse.” The first-round states were adamant that they would not share the burden alone. Washington’s Democratic governor Booth Gardner testified in Congress, “If the federal government won’t play by the rules, we will see you in court. The future of the repository will be tangled in the nation’s court system for years to come.” The fall elections were a disaster for the Republicans, as Herrington had feared. The Democrats picked up eight Senate seats and now controlled the institution by a 55–45 margin, with coal-state titan Robert Byrd installed as Majority Leader. In Washington State, voters unseated Republican Senator Slade Gorton and narrowly elected Democrat Brock Adams. Gorton had been a strong proponent of the second round, hoping to deflect attention from the site in Washington. In North Carolina, Democrat Terry Sanford ousted Jim Broyhill, who had been a key Republican House player in the 1982 act and was appointed to the Senate when Republican John East committed suicide in 1986. In Nevada, a nondescript member of the House, Harry Reid, won an open Senate seat, knocking off Republican nominee Jim Santini with only 50 percent of the vote, as a Libertarian candidate took almost 2 percent, most of it from Santini.

The impending collapse of the program was obvious. In January 1987, the Reagan administration announced a five-year delay in the schedule for the first repository. DOE issued a new schedule for the site selection, citing the technical and political difficulties that lay behind the decision. The agency also noted the congressional action to cut funds as requiring a stretching out of the schedule. The administration also said it would store power plant wastes temporarily at Oak Ridge, although it had no legal authority for that action and soon was forced to back off on that part of the plan.

Fearing a full-scale replay of the legislative chaos that led to the 1982 act, Louisiana Democratic Senator J. Bennett Johnston, by then chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, began looking for a way to get the waste express back on the tracks, and not headed toward the attractive salt beds in his home state. He turned to an idea that journalist Luther Carter had hatched in Science magazine: target Yucca Mountain and forget the rest of the process.

The idea was simple. Yucca Mountain’s volcanic tuff looked like a good place to dump the nuke waste. It appeared to be dry and stable and securely located on the Nevada Test Site, where it was out of the reach of state officials. What’s more, Nevada didn’t pull much political weight in Washington. The state’s senior senator was Republican Mayer Jacob “Chic” Hecht, in his first, and only, term. He was a low profile, malapropism prone Reaganite who never carried any heft in Washington. Influential Republican senator Paul Laxalt decided not to run for reelection in 1986, contemplating running for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988. The state’s two members of the House of Representatives were Democrat James Bilbray and Republican Barbara Vucanovich, household names only in their own households.

Nevada’s very junior senator was Harry Reid, who just turned forty-six when he was sworn into office in January 1987. Reid was a slight, mild-mannered Mormon born in the tiny mining community of Searchlight, Nevada. He was that kind of individual who could easily melt undetected into a crowd. If Harry Reid walked into a Washington cocktail party with a nametag on in 1987, he likely would not have been recognized. But Reid had many virtues, chief among them persistence.

Reid’s political career was mixed before he narrowly won the 1986 Senate race, but demonstrated his willingness to get up and keep fighting after a defeat. After earning a law degree from George Washington University, while working for the U.S. Capitol Police, Reid returned to Nevada. In his twenties, he served as city attorney for Henderson, the state’s second largest city and part of the Las Vegas metro area. In 1970, as a thirty-year-old, Reid was elected lieutenant governor to Democrat Mike O’Callaghan, his political mentor and his former high school teacher.

In 1974, Reid ran for the U.S. Senate and lost narrowly to Republican Laxalt. The next year, he lost a race to be Las Vegas mayor. After the 1980 census, fast-growing Nevada gained a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Reid ran for the new seat and won. He served two terms before making another run for the Senate in 1986 and winning unexpectedly. Reid throughout his career opposed the siting of the nation’s nuclear waste dump in Nevada and he cruised to reelection in 1992; won again, narrowly, in 1998; won easily in 2004, and survived a close race in 2010, targeted by Tea Party Republicans.

Luther Carter in his writings in Science magazine and in his 1987 book, Nuclear Imperatives and Public Trust, had suggested settling on Yucca Mountain as the solution to the radioactive waste morass. “Unless a confident show of progress is made soon,” he wrote in 1987, “the geological disposal effort will take on the appearance, if indeed it has not done so already, of an interminable trek toward an ever-receding mirage.”

Carter suggested that Yucca Mountain had good potential as a nuclear waste dump. But Carter did not suggest some sort of slipshod, kangaroo court approach to designating Yucca Mountain as the final repository site.

That was up to Bennett Johnston and his partner on the Senate Energy Committee, Idaho Republican Jim McClure. Johnston was not only chairman of the energy committee but also chairman of the powerful Senate energy appropriations subcommittee. Together, Johnston and McClure hatched a plan that would direct the Department of Energy to drop the Hanford and Deaf Smith sites, requiring the agency to characterize only Yucca Mountain. They worked to have the language inserted into an omnibus 1987 budget bill, a must-pass measure, during a House-Senate conference committee, so the Johnston and McClure plan was never subjected to debate in any congressional committee or on the floor of either the House or the Senate.

When the bill went to Reagan for signature, Johnston bragged, “I think it’s fair to say we’ve solved the nuclear waste problem with this legislation.” Reid complained it was the “Screw Nevada bill.” Johnston was wrong, and Nevada and Reid eventually screwed those who decided to bully the state by imposing the nation’s nuclear waste on them.

It took time, but patience was Harry Reid’s trump card, and time favored Nevada. The passage of time aided both the politics of opposition to Yucca Mountain and the scientific case against the site, originally thought to be a technical slam-dunk for disposal.

The political case for geological disposal of spent nuclear fuel hinged on the fact that the nation’s nuclear utilities would run out of space at their reactors to store the fuel and that a new round of nuclear construction would add to the growing burden of used fuel rods. But neither came to pass in the fullness of time. Utilities were able to rearrange the spent fuel in the radioactive swimming pools where they initially cooled down after leaving the reactor. More importantly, the industry developed large concrete and steel, air-cooled caskets for housing the spent fuel on site. Every couple of years, the utilities and the nuclear power industry would proclaim an imminent shortage of storage space at the reactor site, which never seemed to materialize.

And new reactors did not appear on American soil. The predicted second wave of nuclear development never materialized. Conditions never seemed to be quite right for new nuclear plants. In the 1980s and early 1990s, decontrol of natural gas prices in the United States produced a long lasting glut, the “gas bubble” that wasn’t a bubble at all but a decade long oversupply, which led to a construction boom for gas-fired generating capacity.

The same time period saw the rise of non-utility generators who did not have captive customers upon whom they could load up the high, upfront capital costs of building nuclear plants, even though the nukes had extremely low fuel costs and favorable environmental impacts on the air. The new non-utility generators, or NUGs, as the industry called them, built plants that were essentially jet engines, burning gas. These combustion turbines generated electricity directly. As the demand for electricity grew and firmed up, the generating companies captured the heat from the jet engines, used it to make steam, and ran the steam through steam-turbine generators, yielding more cheap electricity.

As time passed, the Nevadans and their allies, including some antinuclear groups, mounted a delaying action in Congress and the courts. They made the case that Congress had acted precipitously, picking the site long before anyone had the science in hand to say that Yucca Mountain was even an acceptable place to put radioactive waste, let alone the best place.

It became clear that Nevada’s technical and political objections were taking hold. In 1989, just two years after Congress passed Nevada the black spot, DOE again pushed back the date at which it could have a repository ready, from 2003 to 2010. As a temporizing measure to deal with that delay, the NRC gave utilities a green light for storing waste onsite, outside of the storage pools in the newly-developed storage casks, ruling that this was a safe way of handling the waste.

A recent history of the waste program, Fuel Cycle to Nowhere by environmental lawyers Richard Burleson Stewart and Jane Bloom Stewart, noted that the technical issues surrounding Yucca Mountain continually surprised the supporters of the project. Those technical surprises “produced repeated changes in DOE’s technical assessments for Yucca and revisions to the project design and objectives. The emergence of additional and more complete understanding spawned skepticism about Yucca’s suitability, and not just from hard-line opponents.”

The more DOE examined the site, not just through core samples, but from widespread and deep excavation, the more complex and ambiguous the assessment of the suitability of the site became. A crucial issue was the ability of water to penetrate the volcanic turf that made up the geology of the mountain and the ability of the water table to penetrate the portion of the mountain where the waste would be buried. The assumption from the beginning—and one of the reasons Johnston was able to express complete assurance that doubling down the government’s bet on Yucca Mountain was a sound move—was that the site would be dry.

One of the scientists examining the site was Victor Gilinsky, a nuclear energy old-timer who was one of the earliest members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission when it was created in the breakup of the Atomic Energy Commission. In 2002, Gilinsky, then on the Cal Tech faculty, visited the test tunnel at Yucca Mountain as a consultant for the state of Nevada and told a congressional committee, “I was pretty surprised therefore to find myself standing in the middle of this mountain with water dripping out of it and hitting me on the head.” Water in the repository area, Gilinsky noted, “Will cause corrosion and fissures in the nuclear waste containers and if that happens, the containers could easily start leaking, distributing their contents into the local ecosystem.”

When the Department of Energy first started to understand Yucca Mountain’s major water problem, the government engineers and program managers responded by changing the rules of atomic waste disposal, deciding that it wasn’t so important that the area remain dry. Instead, DOE would design novel metal containers—what some snarky skeptics called “miracle metal”—to hold the waste and isolate it from the water in the mountain.

John Bartlett, at one time the highly-respected director of the DOE waste disposal program, told a federal court that “rates of water infiltration into the mountain were on the order of [one hundred] times higher than had been expected; that water flowed very rapidly through fracture pathways in some of the geologic layers (like flow through a pipe rather than dispersed flow through a medium like a bed of sand); and there appeared to be unexpected ‘fast pathways’ for movement of radioactivity from the repository to the water table about one thousand feet beneath it.” So DOE came up with what it called “engineered barriers”—high tech tin cans. Bartlett described the performance of this new approach as “unknowable.”

As the science and engineering supporting the choice of Yucca Mountain was weakening, Nevada senator Harry Reid was gaining strength and influence. While unprepossessing, Reid was demonstrating over the years that he was adept at correctly counting votes in a body where transparency is most often an illusion. Reid also showed a skill at understanding the often murky motives that moved his fellow senators’ policy positions.

After the reelection to his third Senate term in 1998, when he defeated Rep. John Ensign by four hundred votes, Reid’s Democratic colleagues elected him as party whip, an important job with the responsibility of lining up votes for the party leader, who was South Dakota’s Tom Daschle. Daschle and Reid made an effective team during the early years of the twenty-first century, whether the Democrats were in the minority or majority. Daschle was “Mr. Outside,” good looking and well spoken, a man who moved easily among Washington political and power elites. Reid was “Mr. Inside,” a rumpled presence who worked the corridors and cubbyholes of the Senate stroking egos, twisting arms, and lining up votes for the Democrats.

Reid demonstrated his party loyalty in 2001, after Republican gains in the 2000 election gave them one-vote control of the Senate. The Democrats began wooing Vermont’s wobbly Republican senator Jim Jeffords, who was uncomfortable with the rightward direction of the GOP. If Jeffords left the party, Democrats would regain control and Daschle would be majority leader and control the Senate’s business. Reid would be in line to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, with a major piece of jurisdiction over the DOE waste program.

Jeffords, a strong environmentalist, was the most senior Republican on the environment committee, although the Republican caucus refused to allow him to become chairman because of his party unreliability and green policy coloration. Reid offered Jeffords a deal, proposing that the Vermonter become committee chairman in a Democratic Senate, giving up his own claim to the chair. Jeffords agreed, Daschle became Senate Majority Leader, and Harry Reid remained Daschle’s top lieutenant as majority whip.

Reid also took control of a major money dispenser in the Senate, the energy and water appropriations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, the same subcommittee Bennett Johnston had once ruled. From there, Reid could control the funding for Yucca Mountain. While the 1982 law set up the nuclear waste fund, Congress from the start treated it as just another pot of money. Over the years, as customers of electric companies with nuclear plants contributed their one mill per kilowatt-hour of electricity to the government, Congress consistently cut the budget for the waste program, spending the money on other government programs. Reid continued clamping down on Yucca funding, strangling the project’s finances as the science undermined its rationale.

In the 2004 national election, when George W. Bush was easily elected to a second term, Tom Daschle—to most everyone’s surprise—lost his South Dakota seat. But the Democrats kept control of the Senate, and Harry Reid became the Senate Majority Leader. By most estimates, Yucca Mountain was already a dead dump walking by 2005, but Reid’s ascent to the top job in the U.S. Senate sealed its fate.

Also in 2005, a young freshman Democratic senator from Illinois with the improbable name of Barack Hussein Obama approached his majority leader and pledged his support for killing the Nevada waste dump. Obama knew that if he helped Reid in the Senate, then Reid would help him navigate an institution whose rules and mores were unfamiliar. Obama was also basking in the acclaim from his electrifying speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention and surprising Senate election, thinking that maybe he could run for president someday.

By 2007, following the 2006 by-year elections where Democrats recaptured the House of Representatives and kept control of the Senate, Obama was formulating his plans for a run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama quickly recognized that Nevada’s January Democratic caucus, the third major political event in the nation in early 2008, would be important in giving him credibility and political momentum. In a 2007 letter to the Las Vegas Review Journal, Obama said, “I have always opposed using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository.” Joining all the other Democratic presidential candidates, Obama pledged to kill Yucca Mountain as a repository if elected.

When Obama easily won the election, he moved quickly to redeem his promise to Reid, whom he would need to get his legislative package through Congress. Carrying out Obama’s promise, Energy secretary Steven Chu in May 2009 withdrew the administration’s support for the project. The congressional Democrats followed by slashing funding for the program even below where it had been in the Bush administration. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, under the direction of Gregory Jaczko, a PhD nuclear physicist who had been Reid’s scientific advisor before Bush named him to a Democratic seat at the NRC, began shutting down the agency’s licensing process for the waste dump.

The conclusion of environmental lawyers John and Jane Stewart stands as an epitaph for sixty years of U.S. failure to manage nuclear waste: “The nation again confronts its legacy of highly radioactive defense and civilian waste, this time without a plan or even—under current statutes—legal authority to develop a repository or a consolidated facility.” n

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of
MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available from the POWER Bookstore or Amazon.com and is serialized by permission.