September 19, 2008

Dead Issue Reborn?

By Erin Neff

Nevada voters were starting to hit Yucca Mountain fatigue before the 2004 presidential election. And nothing in the past four years has done a thing to elevate the repository past a political talking point. Voters just haven't cared.

But a funny thing has happened in a matter of days - the tired issue of Yucca Mountain may actually be creeping back into Nevadans' collective psyche. And it's all happening thanks to completely unrelated wrongdoing by the leader of the state's fight against the planned nuclear waste dump.

Bob Loux, the head of the state's Nuclear Waste Project Office, acted unilaterally to increase his salary and those of his office colleagues. That's against the law, and Loux should face a number of ethical and criminal charges on his way out the door.

Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden said Loux needs to resign immediately because he violated the public trust.

"This incident cannot be made to go away simply by apologizing and returning the money," Lowden said on her blog.

Indeed. But Lowden's call for Loux to step down isn't just an isolated demand for the resignation of a public employee who abused power. Lowden and other conservative leaders are using Loux's brazen disregard for the law as a reason to once again soften Nevada's opposition to the dump.

"The integrity and credibility of the Nuclear Waste Project Office has been compromised and irreparably harmed," Lowden said.

Chuck Muth, a conservative activist who is hosting a Western- style CPAC event in Las Vegas this week, has used Loux's behavior to ask for an investigation into the entire office. Muth said he is "neutral" on the planned repository. Is that like being neutral on abortion?

At any rate, Muth wrote this week that it's "time for the NWPO to disappear, as well. Otherwise once Loux is removed from office they'll just appoint another propagandist to keep stifling debate and discussion in this state over Yucca Mountain."

Loux had always taken the position that we're in no position to negotiate for benefits. Muth believes there's room to explore whether we can become an Alaska-style sugar daddy, accepting cash and distributing it to residents, in exchange for burying highly radioactive waste in an earthquake-prone zone near aquifers.

Loux cannot be defended. But it's more than a little odd to ask the federal government to come have a look-see at its opposition.

The feds and most of Congress (Democrats included) are hell-bent on shipping the world's deadliest substance here. Nevada's effort to block the dump has relied heavily on the legal battle coordinated through Loux's office. State Republicans want to close the Nuclear Waste Project Office because their rural base sees the Yucca Mountain Project as an employment boon.

Oh, and it doesn't hurt that the GOP's presidential candidate is for the dump. Or that when you boil down the "Drill, baby, drill" energy plan, Republicans also want more nuclear power plants.

Increasing nuclear power is common sense for international and environmental reasons, but to get there, you have to solve the waste problem. And McCain's ludicrous proposal (if you can call it that) to ship our nuclear waste across the globe to Russia isn't going to get the job done.

It's a lot easier to solve the waste problem if the fatigued electorate in Nevada starts to give in.

Once that drumbeat from Lincoln County starts resonating with conservative leaders and the head of the state Republican Party, it's a simple jump to Gov. Jim Gibbons. After all, Gibbons finds no policy distinctions in his spreadsheets. So axing the Nuclear Waste Project Office would save the state money. But at what future cost?

There has always been a small undercurrent of Republican support for the repository, particularly in rural Nevada. The state GOP has had to battle its more conservative elements over the years to keep Yucca Mountain support out of its official platform. Now some conservatives are using the Loux debacle to try to pick up more support for the dump. Others are simply trying to help McCain sound better in the state.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is credited with helping to slash the Bush administration's budget for Yucca Mountain, said the current talk from conservatives of ending funding for the Nuclear Waste Project Office is a "back-door attempt to get what they've never been able to get."

"Everyone should know that Jim Gibbons is being watched very closely," Reid said. "He has supported us on Yucca Mountain, some have said reluctantly, but I wouldn't (use the term 'reluctantly'). I hope he wouldn't let these right-wing zealots get to him."

The Yucca Mountain Project still may not resonate much here. And it certainly doesn't rise to the level of the economy, the war, education or health care with voters. But conservatives are once again sounding the drumbeat to the national nuclear industry that Nevada is willing to negotiate.

And that's something all Nevadans should watch very carefully.

Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at [email protected]

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