Waste Site Story: Bush Caves on Nukes

In the final days before Election Day 2000, Dick Cheney flew into Nevada to assure worried citizens that, contrary to Democratic campaign propaganda, he and his running mate George W. Bush would take no precipitous action on locating a nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain.

“Let them know it’s not true,” said Mr. Cheney after his rivals warned that a Bush administration would promote the transport of high-level radioactive waste to the controversial site, just 90 miles from Las Vegas. “We won’t support it on either a temporary or permanent basis” unless “it’s deemed safe by government scientists,” he promised, insisting that there was “no difference” between Mr. Bush and Democrat Al Gore on the issue.

Mr. Cheney had good reason to blur any distinctions between Democrats and Republicans regarding the unpopular siting scheme, because the Clinton-Gore ticket had carried Nevada during the two previous national elections, and late surveys showed that neither side could be confident of victory in 2000.

Mr. Cheney further vowed that the Bush administration would veto “any legislation … that is not based on sound science and can’t be done safely,” and that he and Mr. Bush would “support the E.P.A. setting tough standards for health and the environment before anybody does anything” at Yucca Mountain.

As of Feb. 16, 2002, those guarantees had expired; that’s when President Bush announced his support for an Energy Department plan to move ahead with the Yucca Mountain project. Citing “two decades of sound science” that neither he nor his running mate mentioned two years ago–when Nevada’s four electoral votes still could have gone either way–Mr. Bush ratified the recommendation of his Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham. That moved Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid to call Mr. Bush “a liar.”

Whatever one may think about the possible perils to be inflicted on Nevadans and the gaming industry, or the broader merits of nuclear energy, the Bush decision on Yucca Mountain again raises the question of the corporate domination of public policy, and especially energy policy, in this White House. Nevadans must wonder–as everyone now does in the era of Enron–whether corporate lobbyists and campaign donors somehow fixed the friendly politicians who once claimed to be their advocates.

Actually, the fix was probably in long before Mr. Cheney’s late swing into Nevada. Private interests seeking to build the nuke dump at Yucca Mountain were represented by Edison Electric Institute chief Tom Kuhn, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists, who signed up as a “Bush Pioneer”–and then far exceeded the $100,000 minimum that every Pioneer agreed to raise. It was Mr. Kuhn, a Yale classmate of Mr. Bush, who organized lobbyists from dozens of industries to raise funds for his candidacy. And it was also Mr. Kuhn who, as Newsweek reported, told utility executives to write a “tracking code” on each campaign check “to insure that our industry is credited.”

As Mr. Kuhn explained in a memo later obtained by Newsweek, “a very important part of the campaign’s outreach to the business community is the use of tracking numbers for contributions …. Don Evans [then campaign fund-raising chairman, now Commerce Secretary] … stressed the importance of having our industry incorporate the 1178 tracking number in your fundraising efforts.”

Such was the highly scientific method used by the people who now occupy the White House to apportion influence among their supporters. It would be interesting to correlate those carefully coded checks with the names of lobbyists and executives consulted by Mr. Cheney while he formulated the nation’s energy policy. Mr. Cheney won’t release the records of his energy task force, of course, but it is known that several nuclear executives met with Bush advisers Karl Rove and Lawrence Lindsey, as well as the energy task force’s executive director, in the White House last March. Quite soon thereafter, the Vice President was publicly urging us all to “get on with the business of finding a geologic repository” for nuclear waste.

As he knew very well, Yucca Mountain was the only such repository ever considered. And as he and his boss also know, there are serious problems with that site, including the fact that it sits atop 34 seismic faults. In December, the General Accounting Office issued an 11,000-word report that enumerated the many “remaining uncertainties” about Yucca pondered by the government’s own scientists and engineers, including the stability of the repository’s rock formations, the flow of underground water through the site and the “effect of volcanic activity” there.

Understandably, the G.A.O. report questioned the “prudence and practicality” of moving ahead with the Yucca Mountain project now, but its views were ignored by the White House–just as the White House has ignored that same nonpartisan agency’s attempt to find out what went on in Mr. Cheney’s secretive energy task force. But hiding records hardly conceals what kind of government those coded checks bought.