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 Bill Bradbury.

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 going."

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 Public Citizen.

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 point 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 interest.

"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 said.

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 November."

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