How Congress started a holy war by elevating politics over science
Richard Bryan no longer remembers where he was or what he was doing when he heard the news.
For years, Bryan, as attorney general and governor, had been watching and fighting a proposal that Nevada and two other states compete for the dubious honor of being the site for a dump for high level nuclear waste.
Then, in 1987, Bryan was informed that a Louisiana senator was scheming to kill the scientific competition and target Nevada as the only site. The idea was a betrayal of everything the states had been promised.
“I do remember being upset,” Bryan said last week. “But I don’t remember where I heard it.”
In the years since, some newcomers to Nevada have been surprised by the intensity of Nevada’s opposition to the proposed Yucca Mountain site for a dump. This is the story of how that fierceness came to be. With the U.S. House back in Republican hands and the possibility of a GOP president looming, it is relevant history for today’s voters.
In the early years of the atomic age, the federal government made some decisions the nation had to live with thereafter. A fateful effort to promote nuclear power as an energy source led several administrations of both parties to promise to accept the resulting nuclear waste both from other nations and from power plants in the United States, something the nation then had no way of doing.
In 1982, Congress enacted a measure, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, that set up a scientific process for adjudging the suitability of locations for two dumps to take waste from U.S. power plants, one in the East and one in the West. The intent was to ensure, as Congressional Quarterly put it, “that one region would not become the dumping ground for the other.”
Westerners agreed to the NWPA only because there would be two dumps. Ninety percent of the nation’s waste was produced in the East.
The process for the Western site went quickly, but in the East, the notion that a scientific process was underway quickly degenerated into farce. Eastern congressmembers steadily hacked away at the integrity of the NWPA process by excluding states or regions.
When a site in Mississippi was being studied, that state’s U.S. Sen. John Stennis hauled federal energy officials before his committee for a hearing. It seemed that Stennis’ sister owned property near the site. There would be no Mississippi dump.
New Hampshire was the first presidential primary state, so it was soon “understood” that the Granite State was exempt.
Sen. George Mitchell of Maine slipped an amendment into a bill prohibiting granite storage, effectively shielding all of New England from selection.
Sen. Bennett Johnston’s home state had a site. Asked where the dump should go, Johnston said, “Somewhere other than the salt domes in north Louisiana,” and federal energy officials caved in to him.
On May 28, 1986, President Reagan named three sites for suitability studies for the Western dump—Texas, Nevada and Washington.
Washington’s inclusion was an indication that the process was already tainted. There, the site was Hanford, a federal reservation established as part of the Manhattan Project that eventually contained nine nuclear power plants and five plutonium-producing facilities. It was on the bank of the Columbia River on the Oregon/Washington border and would eventually become the site of a multi-billion dollar contamination cleanup that will probably last a generation or two. It was almost designed to not be a good place for a nuclear waste dump, included on the list by U.S. Energy Secretary John Herrington in preference to Richton Dome in Mississippi, ranked higher by Department of Energy (DOE) consultants.
In Texas, the site was Deaf Smith, which would put the dump near a nuclear weapons assembly plant. The waste would be bedded in salt formations.
Yucca Mountain in Nevada was technically located within the Nevada nuclear test site, but not in the contaminated portion. The point is important because easterners liked to say the Yucca dump would be in useless ground. In fact, the site is just inside the western boundary of the proving grounds, and it’s upwind.
Until 1987, while there were objections to the dump selection process, it still bore a patina of science and fairness. That was about to end once and for all.
On Jan. 28, 1987, DOE amended its dump plan to delay the expected opening of a dump from 1998 to 2003 and more or less said it would end the search for a dump in the East, where most waste is produced. A roar of fury swept across the nation, westerners saying Reagan and Herrington were taking the Eastern states off the hook in order to aid Republican senators facing stiff challenges in those states.
The whole NWPA process was in such poor repute that the notion of a “moratorium” on the search process became the rage in Congress, supported by both East and West.
On March 25, 1987, U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, a Democrat, introduced legislation offering any state or tribe that would host a permanent dump for high level nuclear waste $100 million a year. To a state or tribe that accepted a temporary dump, $50 million a year was offered. The measure was cosponsored by Sen. James McClure, an Idaho Republican. Johnston and McClure “are considered to be the nuclear industry’s best friends in the Senate,” wrote Oregon columnist Steve Forrester, who regularly covered Hanford.
There were no takers—certainly not Johnston himself, whose home state contained salt formations that were ideal for the purpose. The closest anyone came to a positive response was Sen. Dan Evans of Washington, who said his state might accept the temporary dump.
But while most of the attention was focused on the financial incentives, Johnston also had something else in mind. He said he wanted to shorten the process by abandoning the scientific study of three sites and instead focus on one. If some state took the money, that would simplify things. If not, the switch could still be made to a single-site search. And he was pretty clear what one state he had in mind. “He noted that some scientists have deemed the Nevada site as the most desirable,” reported the Associated Press.
Nevada, after playing by the rules and putting its faith in a scientific competition among states, would be screwed if Johnston’s bill passed. The concept soon caught on, and Johnston’s legislation became known as the Screw Nevada Bill. Today, the term gets 4,760 hits on Google.
This strategy would put all the nation’s waste eggs in Yucca’s basket. Johnston provided for no backup site if Nevada was found scientifically unsuitable. This was regarded as another way to tilt the selection process.
Johnston chose his moment well. In January, Paul Laxalt had retired as Nevada’s senior senator and was replaced by Harry Reid, who was on the job for just 82 days when Johnston announced his measure. The state’s new senior senator was Chic Hecht, who in 1986 had chastised Nevadans for opposing the dump. Hit with a popular backlash, Hecht had switched sides and come out against the dump, but his heart wasn’t in it.
When he heard what was happening, Gov. Richard Bryan flew to Washington, D.C., to add his voice. The help was needed. Democrats Bryan and Reid were longtime political allies. When they were first termers and political partners in the Nevada Legislature, Republican Speaker Howard McKissick had called them the “gold dust twins.”
The battle lasted all summer and into the winter.
Public Citizen, a group founded by Ralph Nader, issued a report: “If DOE finds the first site tested is inadequate, it will have to test another site. This would create long delays and increased costs because testing can take over five years to complete.”
In one of the states that would supposedly benefit from Johnston’s legislation—Washingtonians had voted 80 percent against accepting the dump—the Spokane Spokesman-Review editorialized, “Logic and fairness suggest that Louisiana Sen. J. Bennett Johnston is off-base by singling out one state as the site for a high-level nuclear waste repository. … Washington state might benefit from Nevada’s being put on the hot seat—but that would mean abandoning the valid arguments that have been advanced until now against the method. In the name of fairness and consistency, that temptation should be resisted.”
Bryan and aide Robert Loux and his staff produced a 100-page document making the state’s case to Congress. The governor told one congressional committee, “Nevadans are outraged that some in Congress—who appear intent on disregarding basic fairness and the factual record—are seeking in effect to ram the repository down our throats because they mistakenly believe that it is politically expedient to do so.”
At a Sept. 18, 1987, hearing of the House Interior Committee, representatives of Nevada, Washington, Texas, Wisconsin and Maine called for an 18-month moratorium on the search for a dump site while the program and the battered NWPA were reexamined. Interior Committee chair Morris Udall, D-Ariz., a harsh critic of DOE’s environmental record involving Nevada, Washington and Texas and its failure to keep the search for an Eastern dump on the rails, supported moratorium.
In testimony to Udall’s committee, Reid warned, “If we’re not able to stop this on the Senate floor, it will slide by this committee as if it didn’t exist.” Johnston’s tactic of attaching his measure to an energy appropriations bill made it possible to bypass Udall’s committee. Johnston attached his measure to a water and energy appropriations bill, which then was added to a spending bill. For good measure, Johnston also attached it to second bill, a tax hike.
Republican U.S. Rep. Sid Morrison, who represented the Hanford area, said what Johnston was trying “leaves a big cloud of uncertainty for many years, and that cloud of uncertainty makes it difficult for communities like the Tri-Cities to attract businesses that may be sensitive about such things.”
The Nevadans made their case, but there was an underlying suspicion that even an authoritative and conclusive case would not help. Powerful forces and figures were aligned against the state. The nuclear power industry went all out. Tom Foley of Washington was the House majority leader. George Bush of Texas was the vice president. Jim Wright of Texas was the House speaker.
Other senators did sympathize with Nevada, and at various times officials from other states helped Reid and Bryan. But that could be pushed just so far—no legislator could be counted on to back Nevada in preference to shielding his own state from a dump.
Johnston won approval in both Energy and Appropriations committees.
For once, legislators could say they knew the provisions of the bill they were voting on. The battle had thrown a light on the measure and attracted significant news coverage.
The legislation did not actually say that Nevada was the one state that DOE would study, but it manipulated the criteria in ways that the NWPA had not, undercutting the science. That left Nevada the all but certain choice.
While Johnston was trying to speed up the search for a permanent repository and turn it into a single-site search, his bill also slowed down the search for a temporary repository and opened it to a three-site search, a contradiction he didn’t explain.
The bill did nothing about the Department of Energy, which was under wide criticism—and court censure—for its handling of site selection. For Johnston’s purpose, a DOE that politicized that process was not necessarily a handicap. Because Johnston’s plan did not provide for a backup site, it was helpful that DOE find Nevada suitable no matter what the evidence showed.
On Nov. 5, Reid and Hecht, joined by Brock Adams of Washington and others, began a filibuster—a real one, where senators actually talk for long periods—to try to stop the Senate’s approval of Screw Nevada. It lasted until Nov. 13. When the Senate voted, Johnston won 63 to 30.
Reid: “It was base, raw, power politics.” He still held out hope that the measure would be stopped by the House. “I think the chances are slim to none that this bill will become law,” he said, noting that opponents of the measure were among the House conferees who would work on reconciling House and Senate versions of the bill.
Over in the House, there was anger.
Udall, Energy and Commerce Committee chair John Dingell, and Energy and Power subcommittee chair Philip Sharp objected to a funding bill as the vehicle for such a change. Udall was particularly upset—it was his legislative skill that had accomplished the fragile and hard-won enactment of the two-repository NWPA that had been undone by Eastern and DOE politics.
But their objections went to Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and Appropriations chair Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, both states that would be at risk if anything took Nevada back out of the running. Anytime Nevada seemed to gain some traction, NIMBYism worked against it. On Dec. 17, a House/Senate conference agreed to retain the Johnston anti-Nevada language in the final bill, along with the provision killing the Eastern dump. The agreement was accepted by the House, and the bill was signed by President Reagan.
There was candor in the House about what was going on. U.S. Rep. Al Swift of Washington: “I am participating in a nonscientific process—sticking it to Nevada.”
Johnston capped his triumph with this statement: “I think it’s fair to say we’ve solved the nuclear waste problem with this legislation.”
Never in his career was Johnston more wrong. He ended up being the person most responsible for the prolonged, bitter process that has never produced a dump.
The new law created policy problems as great as anything in the NWPA, particularly the fact that there was no search going on for another site if Yucca Mountain was found scientifically unfit. “If future surveys prove it [Yucca] unsuitable, Congress has left no way for finding a fallback, and has imprudently put off plans for a temporary backup,” editorialized the New York Times. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming was more succinct: “If Nevada isn’t it, we’re all in deep trouble.”
Even its defenders were hard pressed to be very lyrical in their praise of Johnston’s handiwork. The Times observed that Johnston’s measure “is something of an atrocity, but at least it’s a solution of sorts to a festering problem.”
Congress reaped the whirlwind. Nevada had not liked the notion of nuclear waste storage before, but there had been a semblance of order about the process. The travesty of Screw Nevada outraged Nevadans, creating what New York University law professor Richard Stewart in 2009 called “a deep and abiding sense of grievance on the part of Nevada.” No one in the state worried anymore about tactics because of the tactics that had been used against the state. The state dug in its heels and blocked every avenue, used every legal maneuver, marketed every possible argument to stop the dump project. An ordinary permit could prompt a drawn-out court battle. Nevada quickly slowed the project down to a crawl. It has stayed there ever since. Johnston said $3.8 billion would be saved by enacting Screw Nevada. So far, the protracted suitability studies at Yucca have consumed $8 billion.
One enraged Nevada cost the feds more than three merely opposed states.
And stopping the dump became a holy cause for Reid. As he gained power, he used every opportunity to block the project.
After McClure helped enact Screw Nevada, his own state found itself subjected to similar tactics. In 1992, Idahoans accused DOE of trying to blackmail the state by withholding federal research contracts unless it agreed to receive out-of-state nuclear wastes at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory near Idaho Falls. The Moscow-Pullman Daily News ran an editorial: “Now the pitch is economic self-interest: Play along with us and we’ll keep pouring money into your community and state. But Idahoans have grown suspicious of the boom-and-bust cycles of federal energy and weapons research, and are less likely to accept that bill of goods.”
In the Tri-Cities around Hanford, where 66 percent of residents once voted to take the dump, local businesspeople are now suing the Obama administration to force it to reopen the process of siting Yucca Mountain so Hanford waste can be cleaned up.
The Obama administration went a long way toward undoing Screw Nevada, and the nuclear industry freaked. But in some quarters outside Nevada, there was praise. The Hillsboro Argus in Oregon urged that state’s attorney general not to join the effort to override the administration’s actions on grounds that the process of selection was getting back to propriety and law.
“The horse is back before the cart,” the newspaper observed, “and Washington and South Carolina are upset. … It wasn’t just that the [Yucca] project was a boondoggle. It was that we still don’t know if it was the best option for the nation’s nuclear waste. Transporting casks full of lethally radioactive waste through cities, especially in the midst of a war on terror, is a bad idea.”
Almost no entity in national journalism reported to the public the sense of grievance Screw Nevada created in the state and its consequences for the nation’s waste policy, instead portraying Nevada officials as obstructionist. Perhaps the only exception was a 2009 New York Times piece—“The ‘screw Nevada bill’ and how it stymied U.S. nuclear waste policy”—and it was a synergy report actually done with the website ClimateWire.
In 1992, columnist Hodding Carter III wrote that the result of shoddy U.S. nuclear policy “is free-lance policy-making, as in Nevada’s utterly understandable guerrilla war against the arbitrary designation of Yucca Mountain as the only possible site for a permanent repository.”
A few weeks ago, on March 31, CBS carried an Armen Keteyian report, “Did politics trump science?” It never mentioned Screw Nevada.
Perhaps it’s not that surprising that Richard Bryan no longer remembers where he was when he learned about Screw Nevada.