Photo By David Robert On Monday, Sen. John Ensign (center) and John Hadder, Citizen Alert’s northern Nevada coordinator, awarded top prize in a poster-design contest to McQueen High School senior Scott Shaffer. The annual contest is to raise awareness about nuclear waste issues. Sheffer, like some rural county officials, supports the nuclear waste dump.

A visit to northern Nevada by two Nye County representatives to sell the county’s surprising pro-Yucca posture on the proposed nuclear-waste-dump project has drawn measured opposition from Gov. Guinn and other officials. It marks the latest chapter in the state’s troubled relationship with small rural counties eager to attract economic development to their areas.

Nye County Commissioner Joni Eastley and Nye/Esmeralda Economic Development Authority member Trish Rippie appeared on a Reno television show Dec. 29 to argue that Nevada can’t stop storage of high-level nuclear waste at the proposed Yucca Mountain dump. They said Nye County has received large sums of money from the U.S. Department of Energy, which administers the dump project, convincing the county to drop its “aggressive neutrality” toward the dump.

Guinn appeared on the same program to respond that not only is the dump not inevitable, but it will never open, a view seconded by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.

Nevada has had an uneasy relationship with small southern counties over the Yucca Mountain issue, prompting occasional state discipline of the localities. Nye and Lincoln counties have been receptive to nearly any legal form of economic development, and that stance has brought them into collision with the state. Counties in Nevada enjoy less autonomy and home rule than in nearly any other state, and state legislators never tire of saying that “counties are the creatures of the state.”

In 1987, state lawmakers became convinced that Nye County officials were playing footsie with federal energy officials over nuclear-waste storage at Yucca. The state punished the county by turning the area around Yucca Mountain into a tiny county with no population so that any financial rewards would be diverted from Nye to the state. The creation of “Bullfrog County” was later voided in court.

Lincoln County has been even more troublesome to the state. Assembly Speaker Joe Dini in 1995 told the county’s commissioners that “Lincoln County has attempted to bring in every dirty industry that was available in the country to your county.”

The county tried in the 1980s to lure a toxic waste incinerator to the state. In the mid-1990s, it entered into talks with the U.S. Department of Energy about the possibility of a nuclear-waste dump in the county. That sparked a 1994 attempt by Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa to remove county commissioners from office.

Eastley and Rippie appeared on Nevada Newsmakers, a political chat show on Reno’s KRNV hosted by Sam Shad and Andrea Engleman. Shad interviewed the two.

Eastley told Shad, “It has benefited Nye County to have the study performed on whether or not nuclear waste should be stored at Yucca Mountain. Nye County has been very successful at negotiating with the Department of Energy for some substantial benefits to the county. … We have approximately $30 million in four different endowment funds that we’re using for the benefit of Nye County citizens. And this year, Chairman Henry Neft and I successfully negotiated with the Department of Energy for an additional 56 million dollars’ worth of financial benefits over the next five-year period.”

She said that after President George Bush endorsed the program, county officials decided to abandon their previous posture toward the dump, which she characterized as “aggressive neutrality.” She considers storage of waste at Yucca Mountain “inevitable.”

“I think that that is absolutely going to happen,” she said.

Show host Shad asked what the money was buying the Energy Department, and Eastley said, “This is in exchange for nothing. These are required payments through the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.”

Rippie said that announcement of the proposed construction of rail shipment lines to Yucca Mountain had piqued interest in piggy-backing local uses on the lines.

“We see the possibility of an economic benefit. I think most everybody saw the routes in the paper last week that are proposed rail routes for bringing the waste in. The routes should be used for multi purpose where there could be private use of the rails. Tonopah and Goldfield haven’t had rail service for many years, and that could be a possible means for us to get some kind of economy going, some new industry, with the rails. We look at the benefits—like Joni, I think it’s inevitable that it’s going to come—and we should be getting as much benefits out of it as possible.”

In an appearance on the same program last week, Guinn said flatly that the nuclear-waste dump will never open: “I think that you can already see the Department of Energy has backed off a number of their positions.”

Guinn refrained from criticizing the two Nye County spokespeople but did find fault with the county’s position. He said the fate of the Yucca project is not in the hands of Bush or the Congress, but of the courts and regulatory agencies, where political influence or lobbying power is less of a factor.

“Other agencies are starting to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This hasn’t been conclusively proved that it’s safe,’ “ Guinn said. “And there’s a number—certainly a myriad—of issues that have not been satisfied.

“I think when you get into court an impartial individual such as the judges, the three-judge panel, going to sit there not under the guise of anyone in Washington, D.C., or the White House or anyplace else, and they’re going to say, ‘We want these areas cleared up.’ And if they’re cleared up, then that’s what we’re looking for, is to have clarity for the people of Nevada.”

Speaking in Reno last month at an American Legion hall, U.S. Senator Harry Reid also said the dump will never open (“Yucca,” RN&R News, Dec. 18). He said public awareness of the dangers of terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, has heightened concern and opposition to thousands of shipments of waste crossing the nation. He said on-site storage at the nuclear-power plants generating the waste will be the final outcome.

Guinn added that of the five court actions against the dump project that will receive a hearing in Washington next week, only one has to succeed to stop the project.

State Nuclear Projects Director Robert Loux said later that the idea of also using the rail line for a normal shipping or passenger line to benefit Nye County is unlikely to come to anything.

“It dead-ends at Yucca Mountain,” he said. “Caliente has had a line into their town since time began, and they’ve never been able to capitalize on it.”

Loux also urged caution toward DOE payments at this stage of the process. He said the Energy Department has a history of dangling money early and then reducing or withdrawing commitments once facilities are built. He cited as an example New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where radioactive wastes are stored. In fact, he said, DOE had used payment commitments for WIPP in ways never envisioned in negotiations: “They used it to hold the state hostage for permits.”

Loux said the funds for such payments are subject to annual congressional appropriation, and DOE cannot commit itself too far into the future.

In fact, even the Nye County representatives had some reservations about DOE, complaining about subsidized daily transportation of federal workers 90 miles from Las Vegas to the Yucca Mountain site, depriving Beatty (35 miles from Yucca) of those residents.

“I have apartments in Beatty,” said Ripple. “When they started work at Yucca Mountain, I had tenants move out of Beatty and move to Las Vegas, which is over 70 miles away, because if they lived in Las Vegas, they could ride the subsidized bus. And that’s what they continually do. They provide subsidies for people to live in Las Vegas, where if they live in the actual host communities, they’re on their own [financially], and that’s the deck against the rural areas.

“I think it’s strictly a matter of political clout. In the rural areas, we don’t have much political clout, and we don’t get much benefit.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...