Yucca protesters greet Bush

Hundreds protest Bush’s first visit to Nevada as president; it’s a good thing he’s coming before his nuclear waste does

The entrance to the Yucca Mountian Nuclear Waste Repository.

The entrance to the Yucca Mountian Nuclear Waste Repository.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

President Bush’s Vegas visit Tuesday wasn’t going to get the same kind of outcry as last week’s march in London, where tens of thousands of protesters engaged in such theatrics as knocking over a 17-foot papier-mâché effigy of the Leader of the Free World.

The idea in London was to show anger over the U.S. intervention in Iraq—which the rest of the world calls “an invasion.”

In Vegas, the crowd was smaller. The message was direct: Nevadans haven’t rolled over and given in to Bush’s plan to send high-level radioactive waste to a repository in Yucca Mountain, just 80 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip.

“People here in Nevada need to know who to be angry at as we’re sitting on this powder keg that’s ready to blow up,” said Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert. “Yucca is not a done deal. We believe we can change decisions by changing the decision makers. People have to know that George W. Bush gave us what he promised not to give us.”

Tuesday’s $2,000-per-plate campaign fundraising dinner marked the only time that President Bush has visited Nevada since before he was elected. During a 2000 campaign stop, Bush spoke to about 100 Nevadans at Sand Harbor. There, on the shores of Lake Tahoe, Bush wouldn’t comment on Yucca Mountain. He referred reporters back to a statement to the press a couple of months earlier.

“I believe sound science, and not politics, must prevail in the designation of any high-level nuclear-waste repository,” Bush’s statement said. “As president, I would not sign legislation that would send nuclear waste to any proposed site unless it’s been deemed scientifically safe. I also believe the federal government must work with the local and state governments that will be affected to address safety and transportation issues.”

Gov. Kenny Guinn, at Sand Harbor with Bush, seemed satisfied with Bush’s pledge.

“We don’t believe it will be found to be a scientifically safe site,” Guinn told reporters.

Nevadans contributed to the Bush campaign. Bush raised $300,000 for his campaign and another $240,000 for the Republican Party during that short Nevada stay in 2000.

The president’s pledge must have also resonated with the people. Nevada’s votes went to Bush in 2000, and the state’s measly four-vote electoral contribution was enough to put him in the White House.

Sound science didn’t prove Yucca to be a safe place to store 77,000 metric tons of hazardous waste in 2000.

“That was when we had 293 unanswered scientific questions,” Johnson said. “We still have 215 unanswered questions. We haven’t made much progress. … We’re not even sure if 215 is an accurate number.”

And when the answers to questions aren’t what the administration wants to hear, it can just shift the argument.

Here’s just one small example. Geological isolation of waste that takes 250,000 years to decay is necessary to protect future generations—at least that’s what the U.S. Congress decided in 1982 when it passed nuclear-waste laws. After Yucca was selected in 1987 as the only site to undergo a detailed study, U.S. Department of Energy studies found that the mountain could not geologically isolate waste because water flows faster than scientists had expected through the “dry” mountain.

A Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects report sums up the problem: Yucca, formed from volcanic ash, is the only waste repository under consideration in the world that’s above the water table, not under it. The mountain’s rock is brittle with billions of fractures through which water could or does seep. These “water paths” through Yucca mean that, should a waste container fail, waste would not remain buried in the mountain for 250,000 years. Instead, it’d be only a matter of 50 to 200 years before toxins would be released into the environment, according to the report.

Under the 1982 rules, it’d be illegal to store waste in Yucca.

In 2001, however, the DOE changed its plan so that a suitable repository no longer would have to provide geographic isolation. The mountain merely needed to be able to “delay and dilute” contaminants as the waste containers eventually eroded. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also adopted the newer, easier rules.

That’s just one of many problems at the site. Nevertheless, on Valentine’s Day 2002, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham sent his love to Nevadans in the form of a formal recommendation that the nation adopt Yucca as the first long-term storage for high-level radioactive waste.

The next day, Bush gave the plan his thumbs-up.

“It didn’t even take [Bush] 24 hours after he received a mile-high stack of papers [on Yucca],” Johnson said. The state of Nevada immediately filed a lawsuit to stop the project. Still, in July the U.S. Senate voted in favor of having the DOE move forward with the application process.

“I have to tell you that we believe this was a deal cut behind closed doors, during [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s energy task force meetings,” Johnson said. “At that time, we think the decision was made to go forward—and you see that in [the Republican-backed] energy bill.”

(On Friday, the energy bill that began as a glimmer of hope in the eyes of Cheney’s industry pals and that included $15 billion in corporate welfare for the coal, gas, oil and nuclear industries, was nixed by the U.S. Senate.)

The approval of Yucca is critical to the nuclear-power industry because states have been hesitant to approve building more nuke plants while tons of used radioactive fuel rods pile up outside existing plants.

“One reason that there haven’t been new plants being built is that people want to get that waste out of their states,” Johnson said. “The industry said, ‘We need to build more plants.’ The way you make more money is by producing more power, and these poor guys haven’t been making enough money.

“So they can say [to states], ‘We’ve got Yucca approved. We’re taking care of this. The waste is leaving. It’s going to Nevada. And we can get a license to produce clean, safe and efficient power.’ Heh. Nothing can be clean, safe and efficient if it produces the deadliest substance known to man.”

On Tuesday, several groups joined Citizen Alert at 10:30 a.m., when they began their march in front of the Venetian Hotel Casino. Johnson held a sign with the words Yucca in a slashed circle. Retirees held signs opposing the Medicare bill. (In Reno Tuesday, the Nevada Alliance for Retired Americans also held a press conference to let Bush know it thinks the Medicare bill threatens existing benefits and does nothing to bring down prescription drug costs.)

Union workers in Vegas protesting the administration’s changes to overtime policies. Some, like last week’s Brits, were on hand to let Bush know what they thought of the war. An early loose count indicated about 1,000 protesters from the various groups.

Protesters knew in advance they probably wouldn’t see Bush when he arrived around 11:30 a.m. for the fundraiser. That wasn’t the point. Johnson said the event’s audience wasn’t Bush as much as the leaders and residents of our own state, as well as individuals in other states who may not know that high-level radioactive waste will be transported through their towns and cities.

“People on these routes don’t have a clue what’s coming at them,” Johnson said. “We’re doing this so people know we’re still fighting.”

As far as Nevada leaders go, Johnson said she’s disappointed that Gov. Guinn—whose work she called “amazing” during the 2003 legislature—has signed on to help Bush get reelected.

“I had appreciated his courage on Yucca,” she said. “It made me proud that he was my governor. … And I appreciated that [Nevada Attorney General] Brian Sandoval has stood up.”

In light of this, it’s hard to understand why these leaders are backing Bush.

“I get that they’re Republicans, and that’s OK," she said. "They can go to his fundraiser, and they’ll most likely vote for him. But don’t step up and be leaders in his reelection campaign. I’m terribly disappointed in that. They could have remained cordial, but they should have said, ‘Sorry, we can’t sue you and hope you’ll be reelected at the same time.' "