Toxic nuclear waste: coming soon?

Not if anti-nuke bureaucrat Bob Loux has a say

Bob Loux won’t cave in the fight against a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

Bob Loux won’t cave in the fight against a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

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State lawmakers passed another resolution against the proposed nuclear dumpsite 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas last week. This time, the resolution, SJR 6, criticized federal energy officials for selecting Yucca Mountain based on political, instead of scientific, reasons. It urged President Bush to veto any temporary or interim facility.

Only two legislators voted against the resolution—state Sens. Lawrence Jacobsen, R-Minden, and Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas.

“This does nothing but make us feel good,” Neal said on the Senate floor last week. “In my judgment, it means nothing.”

Neal suggested the resolution was a waste of time and that the Legislature should instead focus on the high cost of electrical power. For years, he has been asking the state to begin negotiating with federal officials, citing the inevitability of the proposed dumpsite.

“We, as a state, do not have any bargaining rights in this particular issue,” Neal said. “We are not a part of the contracts that have been negotiated with the generators of the waste by the Department of Energy.”

Bob Loux, executive director for the state’s Nuclear Waste Projects Office, disagreed.

Loux, 51, has fought numerous battles against the proposed dumpsite in Nevada and on Capitol Hill against the U.S. Department of Energy. He suggested that if the state showed even the slightest interest in negotiations on the proposed dump, it would open a Pandora’s box.

“We have been successful with keeping [nuclear waste] out of here for 15 to 20 years,” he said.

Science or politics?
A slated June decision on the Yucca Mountain site is expected to be delayed because of an investigation, which is reviewing charges that the DOE was working behind the scenes with the nuclear industry to recommend the site.

In early December, the Las Vegas Sun reported that the dumpsite’s chief contractor, TRW Environmental Safety Systems Inc., sent the DOE a two-page memo attached to a favorable environmental overview of questionable scientific value. The memo inferred that the overview could be used as a means to convince Congress that Yucca Mountain is a suitable site. Federal law prohibits the DOE from showing a bias in the selection process.

In a letter to Gov. Kenny Guinn last year, then-candidate George W. Bush promised that his decision on Yucca Mountain would be based on science. Loux told The Associated Press last year, “If the decision is made in June, it will be purely a political decision and not a scientific one.”

Loux said the issue may likely end up in the courts as the DOE finalizes rules for its environmental assessment of the Yucca Mountain site.

Bad dump, go away
The nuclear dump remains an issue that most Nevadans agree on. According to a statewide poll conducted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year, 58 percent of Nevadans favor political candidates who oppose storing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. Loux cited opposition being as high as 80 percent. He said the issue resonates well with Nevadans because of their anti-federal sentiments and environmental, health and economic concerns surrounding the dumpsite. Resolutions against the proposed site have come from most of the state’s largest municipal governments, as well as public safety, medical, tourism and gaming organizations.

"[Nevada politicians] intuitively know it’s bad for the state,” he said.

Opposition against the dump is propelled by grassroots environmental organizations such as Citizen Alert, a stalwart opponent of the nuclear waste site.

Loux was appointed to head the NWPO by former Gov. Richard Bryan in 1983. This came shortly after Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to determine a means of disposing high-level nuclear waste.

The legislation also allocated funding for states to wage public information campaigns about nuclear energy and waste disposal. The NPWO received its initial funding from that legislation.

Five years later, a revision to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act narrowed the nation’s choices of nuclear waste repository sites to one: Yucca Mountain. Sen. Bryan dubbed the 1987 revision the “Screw Nevada Bill.” Anti-nuke sentiment, once confined to grassroots groups, started to develop bipartisan support.

Loux said that over the years, his agency has had the support of governors and Nevada congressional members both Democratic and Republican.

“Bryan was the driver of the opposition,” he said. “Guinn has been the most innovative.”

However, under pressure from Congressional Republicans last year, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called for Loux’s ouster from the office. Reid said that the NPWO’s misuse of federal funds and Loux’s vocal opposition to the dump were hampering efforts to pass compromise legislation on the NCAA sports wagering bill.

A 1998 congressional audit found that the NWPO misspent nearly $700,000 in federal funds for propaganda against the dumpsite from 1992 to 1995. Loux defended the use of the money.

“We have viewed this as an inhibition of free speech,” Loux said.

Though the agency’s anti-nuke campaigns were dubbed a mishandling of funds, the DOE’s promotional campaigns go unchallenged. Community groups and school children are invited to take field trips to the site as a means of generating favorable opinion.

“It just suggests to me that if this was such a good site, it would sell itself,” he said.

One of his agency’s biggest accomplishments, Loux said, was driving the nuclear power industry out of the state.

“The industry’s campaign was one of the most obnoxious events that has happened in Nevada’s history,” he said.

Intimidation tactics were used against Loux and other Nevada leaders opposed to the dump. Loux recalled unidentified nuclear industry officials following him as he spoke to Nevadans throughout the state about the dangers of the dump.

Toxic goo
The state and the DOE essentially agree that the Yucca Mountain site is probably not perfectly suited for the task, Loux said, given its geologically young nature and unstable seismic characteristics. The issue now on the table focuses on the disagreement by the state and the DOE over container safety, or the durability of canisters in which spent nuclear fuel rods containing plutonium would be stored. Under the proposal, 77,000 tons of nuclear waste would be transported to the state in these canisters. Radiation from the spent fuel is so intense that anyone with direct contact would be become terminally ill.

Another concern is the contamination of the Southern Nevada aquifers that would be used to dilute the radiation if the site were approved, Loux said. Organic dairy farmers serving Los Angeles use the aquifers.

“All the studies we’ve done show negative effects,” he said.

Loux said the state would put together a $5 million advertising campaign to run in other states through which nuclear waste would travel from more than 100 commercial nuclear power plants—located mostly on the East Coast.

He painted a worst-case scenario of an accident occurring on the Las Vegas Spaghetti Bowl, where even if a little radiation was released, it would force the evacuation of at least 40 square miles. And even if the radiation were contained, the tourist-based economy might never recover from the stigma of contamination.

“That would totally wipe out Las Vegas,” Loux said.

The scientific arguments are there. What remains are the political contests. Is the battle against nuclear waste a winnable one for Nevada?

Loux said it is. His experience fighting the nuclear power industry should serve as a lesson, he said, that citizens could mount an effective campaign against what endangers their livelihood.

“It really shows how you could be a David going up against the Goliath," he said.