Wall Street Journal


By Gerald F. Seib

In Going Nuclear,
Bush and Cheney Face the Waste

May 16, 2001

THE PRESIDENTIAL election was two weeks away, and George W. Bush's campaign had a problem. Support was slipping in the swing state of Nevada, in part because Democrats were running TV ads predicting that, once in office, Mr. Bush would pave the way for the rest of the country to dump its nuclear waste there.

So a top Bush campaign figure rushed to Nevada to reassure the citizenry. A Bush administration wouldn't let any waste site be built in the state, without "sound" science showing it was safe, he said. It would put the Environmental Protection Agency, not the more industry-friendly Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in charge of setting safety standards before any permanent site were built. In short, he declared, "there isn't any difference" between the positions of Mr. Bush and his opponent, A1 Gore, on nuclear waste storage.

That Bush campaign representative? He was Dick Cheney, who soon enough became vice president and the architect of a new energy policy that is to be unveiled tomorrow.

That policy is going to call for ramping up nuclear power, meaning the controversy over whether to store nuclear waste at a site under Nevada's Yucca Mountain is about to move from campaign footnote to burning political issue. The campaign effort to secure Nevada's electoral votes was successful; candidate Bush, with nary a state he could afford to lose, beat Mr. Gore there, 50% to 46%. Now President Bush will have to figure out how to square the rhetoric on nuclear waste that was so important to his campaign with an energy policy that is crucial to his presidency.

FOR HIS PART, Mr. Cheney appears to be under no illusions that it will be easy. "Probably the key public policy issue on nuclear power is the waste problem," he said in an interview last week. "There has been a lot of work done on Yucca Mountain, and there are some other ideas floating around, but clearly if we expect to generate significant amounts of power from nuclear we are going to have to solve the waste problem:" But how? "Some things," Mr. Cheney replied, "you just have to keep banging away at." But Washington has been banging away at the Yucca Mountain problem for 14 years, to no conclusion. It was 1987 when Congress, faced with the fact that nuclear waste was piling up at the nation's 108 nuclear power plants, decided it needed a permanent place to stash it. States turned away in horror, but after a flurry of maneuvering, Nevada got the short straw. Yucca Mountain, a barren corner of an atomic testing site, was named the permanent storage site.

Yet the site hasn't come to pass. The Energy Department is still working on an environmental impact study that is to be finished late this year. Meanwhile, Yucca Mountain has forged bipartisan unity in Nevada: The state's two senators, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign, both oppose it. Sen. Reid, in particular has become the worst nightmare of the site's proponents, securing seats on the committee that oversees the EPA and the subcommittee that decides on energy budgets.

IN LAST FALL'S campaign, the debate turned on the seemingly arcane question of which government bureaucrats would write the standards governing radiation levels at the storage site. Nuclear power proponents wanted the NRC to do the job. Foes of the site wanted the job done by the EPA, which they figured would set tougher standards for acceptable radiation levels and include a specific standard for ground water. Some in Nevada think that if the EPA sets the standards, it's less likely the nuclear waste site will ever open.

On this question, the Bush campaign initially waffled last fall. So in mid-October the Gore campaign began running a television ad charging that nuclear power producers were "pouring money" into the Bush campaign, and that in return a Bush White House would lower safety standards, "paving the way for the dump."

That's when Mr. Cheney swooped back into the Nevada, which he had visited just two weeks earlier, to declare that the Bush team would let the EPA set "tough" safety standards.

The question lingers, though. Sen. Reid has held up confirmation of EPA officials until the agency actually publishes its safety standards for Yucca Mountain. Meantime, President Bush is on track to make a decision on whether to proceed with the Yucca Mountain site around the end of this year. The only obvious alternative is to store nuclear waste more or less permanently at the many nuclear plants where it is produced - which would give rise to lots of little disputes around the country instead of one big one in Nevada.

Mr. Cheney noted in the interview last week that presidents get elected to make tough decisions. The maneuvering over Nevada in the campaign has ensured that this one will be as tough as any for the Bush team in its national energy policy.