Yucca Mountain Lurks on Senate Race Horizon
The Oregonian -- May 28, 2002
by Harry Esteve
Nevada's Yucca Mountain lies more than 300 miles southeast of the
Oregon border, but it could cast a shadow in this state as a target in
the U.S. Senate race between Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat
With the Senate set to vote this summer on the question of using the remote site for nuclear waste storage, a coalition of environmental groups is pressuring Smith, the incumbent, to oppose the plan, arguing that shipping the waste poses a hazard and a risk of "terrorist attack."
If Smith doesn't vote against the plan, coalition members say they
will make it an issue in Smith's re-election campaign. They've already
begun to publicize Smith's acceptance of $70,500 in political donations
from groups tied to the nuclear power industry.
As yet, Yucca Mountain -- and the environment in general -- haven't
taken on the political sheen of issues such as economic recovery and
anti-terror efforts. But Bradbury has said he will make the environment
a cornerstone of his campaign, and environmental groups already are
hammering on Smith, hoping to get a toehold in the November election.
"We can't match the nuclear industry's money, but they can't match
our grass-roots power," said Michel Carrigan, spokesman for Oregon
Peace Works, an anti-nuclear and anti-war group that is helping organize the
effort to block the Yucca Mountain project. "We have a serious campaign
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is worried about the safety of transporting
the waste to the site and probably will vote against the project, said
Lisa Raasch, Wyden's communication director. But Smith indicated he's
leaning toward approval, although he's willing to give Nevada leaders
who oppose it a last shot at persuading him to do otherwise.
In Oregon, the issue centers on hundreds of spent nuclear fuel rods at the defunct Trojan Nuclear Plant near Rainier, and millions of
gallons of liquid radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation
near Richland, Wash. Shipping the waste to Yucca Mountain would
involve thousands of truck trips or hundreds of train trips through Oregon.
Smith said a central repository makes more sense than leaving the
waste in scattered locations.
"Do we leave it in Oregon for 1,000 years? Or do we move it through
Oregon once and be rid of it forever?" he said. "That's where I see my
vote at this point."
Two-decade debate Yucca Mountain has been at the center of a
two-decade debate about the best way to store 77,000 tons of waste
byproducts from 131 nuclear reactors across the nation. A 1987 law
allows the president to designate the disposal site, which President
Bush did in February. But Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn vetoed the decision,
as allowed by law, leaving it to Congress to decide.
The House voted 306-117 on May 8 to override Guinn's veto. Now the
Senate must act by late July or the veto stands.
Bradbury, Oregon's secretary of state, said it would be
"irresponsible" to move forward on the Yucca Mountain project until
transportation safety issues are resolved. The potential for a
catastrophic accident is too high, he said.
Bradbury also said Yucca Mountain isn't big enough to handle all the
nation's nuclear waste, which could reopen a proposal to make Hanford
a waste depot.
"What we should be looking for in our senators is a commitment to
make sure the American public is safe from nuclear waste," Bradbury
said. He also took a shot at Smith's acceptance of campaign money from
political action committees and companies tied to nuclear power.
"When you get $70,000 from the nuclear industry, it gives you a
certain perspective on the issue," he said. "My perspective is very
clearly the safety of Oregonians."
PAC cash According to a report published by Public Citizen, a
Washington, D.C., group that studies political contributions to
Congress, Smith ranks 15th among senators who received cash from
political action committees with nuclear energy ties.
Bradbury has received no political donations from sources associated
with the Nuclear Energy Institute, the group that lobbies for nuclear
power. Wyden has received $31,900 from those sources, according to
Smith takes issue with the argument that trucking the waste poses an
unacceptable risk. And he downplays any influence campaign
contributions might have on his decision.
Most utilities have some ties to nuclear energy, Smith said, and he
has no qualms about accepting donations from utilities. He also pointed
out he was among a small number of senators who supported energy
price caps, which many energy traders and generators lobbied against.
On the transportation issue, Smith said the benefit of storing the
waste in a central location outweighs what he said is a minor risk of
trucking it there. "People need to understand that nuclear waste is
moved about the country constantly" with little problem, he said. Moving
the waste does not make it more vulnerable to terrorists than leaving it
at places such as Trojan and Hanford, he said.
For environmental groups, Yucca Mountain has become a rallying
in the nationwide effort to stall further development of nuclear power.
They see the upcoming Senate vote as a turning point in the debate, and
they see it as a way to turn a fairly obscure issue into one with local
"It's been a Nevada problem," said Amy Hojnowski, Oregon field
representative for the National Environmental Trust. "Now it's an Oregon
problem." The waste would be shipped through cities and towns and
along the Interstate 84 corridor, she said. "It's going past our schools, our
hospitals, our homes."
Hojnowski hopes to bring the issue into the state's political arena.
But environmental issues haven't surfaced as a big factor in campaigns
yet, said Tim Hibbitts, a Portland pollster who has surveyed voters on
the Senate race. "We don't see them on the front burner right now," he
Smith has never courted support from environmental groups, but he
has tried to cultivate an image as an environmental moderate --
supporting farmers and loggers, but also voting to protect the Steens
Mountain area in Southeast Oregon and to prevent oil drilling in
Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Environmentalists see the Yucca Mountain decision as another key
vote and hope Smith heeds their concerns.
"The fact that he's up for re-election," Hojnowski said, "is
definitely going to influence everything he does between now and
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