Courtesy Of Nevada Nuclear Projects Office Yucca Mountain in Nye County is apparently a sought-after tourist destination, at least on Capitol Hill.

Yucca Mountain is becoming ensnarled in the congressional lobbying scandal.

And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has published a scientific study of the proposed dump for high level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain, the very existence of the book testifying to the unlikelihood of any early resolution of the scientific issues surrounding the project.

These are two of the most recent developments surrounding the increasingly moribund dump project.

Yucca’s name in connection with lobbying came up in a study that said the nuclear power industry’s lobbyists have spent $1.1 million in the past six years taking lawmakers and their staff members on tours of nuclear plants in Spain, France, Japan and to Yucca Mountain.

The study, Power Trips, was done by the Center for Public Integrity.

“We take these people to these places to educate them,” Nuclear Energy Institute spokesperson Mitch Singer told the Center. “They discuss the policies of the host countries. And they find it incredibly valuable to them, especially when they come back to this country to discuss legislation.”

“Education through travel is important,” said American University Professor James Thurber. “But it’s just totally being abused. They give a one-hour speech and spend three days playing golf or tennis with their families.”

Visitors to Yucca Mountain presumably stayed in Las Vegas, a world-class resort destination.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which paid for the trips, “spent almost $10 million on lobbying from 1998 to 2004 and issued news releases and policy briefs on everything from power plant security to environmentalism,” according to the Center. “The organization has more than 250 corporate members, a diverse group including construction firms, electric utilities and research universities.”

Jim Morris, honcho of the study, said there is nothing wrong with congressional travel to study public issues, but there is no accountability surrounding privately financed trips.

“A number of these trips are legitimate,” Morris said. “We’re certainly not implying that they’re all vacations or junkets, but it was pretty obvious when we looked at all these records. It’s pretty easy to see the difference between what most of us would call a legitimate fact-finding trip—you know, visiting a hurricane-ravaged part of Louisiana or going to Iraq or something—contrasted with a four-day trip to Las Vegas that is built basically around a one-hour speech.”

MIT’s study of Yucca Mountain issues includes papers by nearly three dozen scientists.

Because the dump has become doubtful as a result of scientific questions, environmental safeguards, state opposition and regulatory issues, the nuclear lobby is now seeking legislation to circumvent those processes.

Even eliminating the French, Spanish and Japanese junkets, a substantial portion of the U.S. Congress has made trips to Yucca Mountain—67 members of the House and 23 members of the Senate.

“This is the way the nuclear industry operates,” said Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects director Robert Loux. “With very deep pockets, they have the ability to sponsor travel all over the world in their effort to promote nuclear power, and promoting Yucca Mountain is a part of that effort.”

Morris said that some analysts and academics say that if congressional research is important enough to merit travel—and it may be—then public funds should pay for it.

“Of course, when you take a government-paid trip, you’ve got to do a lot more accounting; you’ve got to account for your actions a lot more thoroughly,” he says. “It’s certainly more transparent than this system. If you spent $5,000 of the taxpayers’ money to go somewhere, you’ve got to be prepared to justify it. But with these private trips, nobody knows about them. So that’s why some of these folks are willing to take a $25,000 trip.”

Closer to home
Loux said it doesn’t stop at Congress, and it unbalances the playing field in the debate over Yucca Mountain.

“Unfortunately, local elected officials often get caught in ethical and other problems when they get home. One only has to look at the situation of Caliente Mayor Kevin Phillips, who with his wife has been on many of these trips overseas to tour various nuclear facilities—paid for by NEI—who now faces ethical complaints before the state Ethics Commission. Trips and tours have long been one of the tactics employed by NEI to lobby and otherwise promote their agenda, something that the state and others opposed to Yucca Mountain simply don’t have the ability to do.”

The MIT study of Yucca, Uncertainty Underground, was edited by MIT researcher Allison Macfarlane and Rodney C. Ewing and contains chapters by 32 scientists, including the two editors.The book has sections on the hydrology of the mountain, the thermohydrology, the earth science, the forms in which waste can be stored, packaging for storage, uncertainties and U.S. nuclear waste policy.

It is relatively technical (and priced at $29), but one of its authors says it was not written either for the scientist or for ordinary members of the public.

“The target audience was something in between that, I guess,” says UNLV geologist Jean Cline. Cline wrote chapter 10, “Hot Upwelling Water: Did It Really Invade Yucca Mountain?”

“Maybe people involved in working on Yucca Mountain or who are involved in the whole [public] process of understanding Yucca Mountain, maybe bureaucrats, for one, non-technical people who are involved in trying to understand the pros and cons … non-scientists who are involved, maybe politicians … In essence, I would say lay people, but perhaps lay people with some involvement or some understanding of the project.”

In other Yucca news, the Nevada site is becoming an issue in India, where critics of George Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership say the GNEP would create a Hitlerian status of have and have-not nations and that India would be the only nation denied indigenous waste reprocessing. Indian columnist M.D. Nalapat suggested that Bush is in no position to be planning any other nation’s energy future since Congress last month slashed his budget for the troubled Yucca Mountain project by half.

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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...