Despite House vote, Reid is 'cautiously optimistic'
By Benjamin Grove
LAS VEGAS SUN
May 9, 2002
WASHINGTON -- Now that the House has given the Yucca Mountain
nuclear waste repository its approval with a 306-117 vote Wednesday,
the project could move quickly through the Senate, where Nevada
leaders hope to derail it.
Despite the overwhelming House vote, Sen Harry Reid, D-Nev., said
he is "cautiously optimistic that we will prevail" in the Senate.
House leaders acted quickly on the resolution to override Gov.
Kenny Guinn's veto and approve putting a the repository in Yucca
Mountain. Nevada leaders have always said the best chance to stop
the project is in the Senate, where Reid is majority whip.
The Senate will take it up quickly: Three Energy Committee
hearings are scheduled during the next two weeks, and Reid said the
bill could come to the Senate floor as early as late June.
Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said the defeat in the House
would not deter their quiet, long-shot lobbying effort in the
Senate, where they need 51 votes against the controversial project.
Reid said he is relying on Ensign to corral about 12 Republicans,
hinting that there could be as many as 39 Democrats willing to vote
against Yucca Mountain.
"If we get a dozen Republicans, we'll be in good shape," Reid
Gov. Kenny Guinn said this morning on "DayOne Las Vegas" that the
vote was a success because Yucca opponents picked up more votes than
they started with.
"(The vote count) did improve," he said. "That means more and
more people are listening."
Guinn said he is more optimistic of the state's chances to stop
the dump in the courts rather than in the Senate.
"I'm not going to say we're going to win in the Senate because
this is a high-powered political issue and we're a small state," he
But with the clock ticking, Ensign's task seems nearly
impossible. He would not say whether he has managed to convince more
than Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., to oppose a Yucca dump.
Ensign in the last six weeks has met with all but "a handful" of the
Republican senators, trying to raise doubts about the nuclear waste
project. Aside from Campbell, none is on record opposing the dump. A
few have agreed to be "undecided," Ensign said.
"I still think we have a very difficult task, but we are going to
work it right up until the very end," he said.
Most observers expect the Senate to approve the repository.
After the vote, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham reasserted his
argument that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- not Congress --
should have the final say about whether Yucca Mountain is
constructed. The NRC would be responsible for reviewing an Energy
Department application to license the waste site.
"Nothing that the opponents of Yucca Mountain have presented,
including baseless allegations regarding the transportation of
nuclear waste, rises to the burden of proof that requires Congress
to stop the process before a thorough review of the site is
conducted by the independent experts at the NRC," Abraham said in a
House GOP leaders wanted to push the Yucca resolution into the
Senate with an overwhelming vote.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, a driving force behind Yucca in the
House, said 306 votes in favor -- including 102 Democrats and
independent Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia -- were 30 or 40 more than
Barton predicted at least 58 or 59 senators would support Yucca.
The House vote should be another wake-up call for Nevada
lawmakers to relinquish some of their opposition to the dump so that
they can begin negotiating for cash and project terms, he said.
"You can say, 'We don't want it, and we don't like it, but if you
are going to have it here, we want points A, B, C and D addressed,'
" Barton told the Sun.
Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said he was disappointed just 13
Republicans voted against Yucca; he had hoped for as many as 20.
"There was a great deal of arm-twisting in the last few minutes"
by Barton and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the House Energy and
Commerce chairman, Gibbons said.
In the broader scope, Nevada's two congressmen were overmatched
by the nuclear energy industry, which has spent millions of dollars
in recent months on lobbying and advertising, Gibbons said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's top trade group,
helped organize lobbyists, who swarmed House offices in recent
weeks, and paid for print and television advertisements in national
"We did well to get the votes we did," Gibbons said. "These are
trying times for Nevada. This was a fateful day."
At issue in the House on Wednesday was a one-sentence resolution
on whether to approve Yucca Mountain.
Congress will handle Yucca budget issues and oversight, but the
vote on the simple legislation was the final opportunity for the
House to offer its verdict on the nuclear waste project that dates
One by one, repository advocates -- a number of whom have nuclear
plants in their districts -- came to the floor to tout the virtues
of Yucca. For years, they have been eager to ship out waste that has
been piling up in their districts.
"We need to finish the job today," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.,
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., stressed that Congress did not have
the final word on Yucca. Scientists and other Nuclear Regulatory
Commission experts who would license the site, should be making the
final decision. "This is just another step in the process," Dingell
Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga., agreed. "The vote today does not
lock us in forever. Now is not the time to jump ship."
Gibbons and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., drew on their allies
for help during the 3 1/2-hour debate. Of the 117 lawmakers who
voted against Yucca, 103 were Democrats, and independent Bernard
Sanders of Vermont. Nevada officials hope his vote could influence
Sen. James Jeffords, another independent, who has voiced support for
Rep. James Matheson, D-Utah, said he did not want waste shipments
hauled through his state. He said he did not trust the government to
be honest about the risks of storing nuclear waste because it had
not been upfront about the risks of nuclear bomb tests in Nevada
during the Cold War. Many Utah residents suffered various health
problems as "downwinders" Matheson said.
"The federal government told us we were safe, but it knew we were
at risk," Matheson said.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said the Energy Department's
site recommendation was simply based on bad science. She said she
would vote against the project even though her state is home to
"I don't mind standing up with the few and the brave," Lee said.
Berkley disputed GOP leaders who said the House vote gave them a
giant push heading into the Senate.
"Naturally it is disappointing to lose such an important vote by
a large margin," Berkley said. "But by garnering more than 100
votes, we were able to defy expectations, deny the nuclear industry
the huge win that they wanted, and slow the momentum on the bill as
it moves to the Senate."
After the vote, nuclear energy industry officials praised the
House asdejected environmental groups said they would turn their
attention to the Senate.
"Lawmakers in the House have demonstrated their commitment to a
solution to the nation's growing nuclear waste storage problem --
now it's up to the Senate to follow their lead," said Bruce Josten,
executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber
of Commerce, which actively supports a Yucca repository. Las Vegas'
chapter severed its ties with the parent group over the issue.
The House vote signaled not just support for a waste project, but
nuclear power in general, Nuclear Energy Institute President and
Chief Executive Joe Colvin said.
"The House of Representatives today affirmed the future of a
vital national energy and environmental project at Yucca Mountain,
Nevada," Colvin said. "The House, in a clear bipartisan signal to
the U.S. Senate, supports the science-based decision to build a
national repository 1,000 feet under the Nevada desert, and
recognizes the safety and security of the transportation system that
will move nuclear byproducts from 39 states to the facility."
Public Citizen, the Washington-based environmental and consumer
advocacy group, continues to coordinate grass-roots campaigns with
local groups in about 20 states to sway the Senate, Public Citizen
activist Lisa Gue said. The organization was encouraged by a handful
of undecided lawmakers who voted in to oppose Yucca Mountain.
"We just have to demand that a more responsible decision be made
by the Senate than was made in the House," Gue said.