Rural Wrap

Politicians Battle to Prove Congress Can't Be Trusted

By Dan Steninger

itizen Alert’s "Mobile Chernobyl" show wasn’t much of a crowd generator when it came through Elko last month. The official count at the rally around the "mock nuclear waste cask" parked at Great Basin College was "a few students."

That evening, the audience attending an informational meeting on nuclear waste numbered an estimated two people—and we assume that’s an accurate count, seeing as how it came from the woman who dragged her husband to the meeting and then wrote me a letter complaining about the apathetic ignorance of the people of Elko.

Adding insult to ignorant apathy, the city manager told Citizen Alert she really didn’t see much point in putting a discussion of making Elko a nuclear-free zone on the city council agenda. But thanks for asking. But I get the feeling that nuclear waste is an issue of somewhat greater weight down in Las Vegas, where phobias must be given credibility by politicians hoping to compete in the big leagues of Nevada politics.

That feeling comes from the number of press releases I receive whenever the issue surfaces. As the faxes started pouring out around the time Citizen Alert was in town, marking another event in the progress of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, I got to wondering if anyone yet has undertaken a study to compare the relative harm of burying nuclear waste in the desert and burying the desert in waste-related press releases from Nevada politicians.

Perhaps NPRI readers already understand all this, but the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is Congress’ effort to make up for its failure to erect a nuclear-waste repository by the time Congress promised it would do just that. Back in 1982, Congress nationalized nuclear waste and said it would relieve electrical utilities of caring for the waste come January of 1998.

Congressmen realized a while back that there was no hope of actually having the repository ready on time, so they came up with a proposal to "temporarily" store the stuff in the same place they had planned to permanently store it—Nevada.

In the latest round of press releases, we heard from Rep. John Ensign, who informed the public that he had brought the NWPA a little closer to death by "use of a rare legislative tactic" that threw the matter back to the U.S. Senate. There, Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan would then do their best to stall the matter some more in hopes of killing this proposal designed to make up for the failure of Congress to live up to its earlier promise. (Living up to a promise. Now that would have been a rare legislative tactic.)

While the maneuvering won our congressional representatives wide-ranging applause as great defenders of Nevada, it’s time to step back and examine just what is going on.

Congress in 1982 decided to expand the scope of federal powers by decreeing that nuclear waste was a concern of the central government. The authority, as I recall—and I’d advise against quoting me on this, it was a long time ago—was found in an emanation of the penumbra surrounding the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The emanation instructed those with the special glasses needed to see it that the Tenth Amendment was a figment of our imaginations being perpetuated by the efforts of a vast right wing conspiracy.

Congress then proceeded to levy a tax on utility customers benefiting from the generation of electricity at nuclear reactors. Over the years Uncle Sam has extracted $14 billion from these consumers; and some of them are a little concerned that the money might have been put to other uses. But I’ve been assured by the authorities that the money is safe, right there in the vault next to the Social Security Trust Fund, the Airport Improvement Trust Fund and the Highway Trust Fund. That’s one less thing we have to worry about.

That $14 billion kitty is the problem with the efforts to keep the stuff out of Nevada. Congress said it would take the waste; Congress taxed people to take the waste; and all we hear from our politicians is how they plan to fight tooth and nail to put Congress in breach of its contract with millions of taxpayers who have been taxed to the tune of billions of dollars.

Yes, every now and then we hear of proposals to keep the waste right where it is, in holding facilities in the populated areas hosting the nuclear reactors. While that might be a fine idea—personally, I think the old atomic testing grounds would be more suitable—it is a late idea. It is an idea that was ruled out 16 years ago when Congress told the utilities not to worry, just pay Uncle Sam and he’ll take care of it.

The Nuclear Energy Institute—the lobby for those utilities—points out that forcing them back to the drawing board to come up with plans to store the waste permanently on their own property is going to cost them $56 billion on top of the $14 billion they’ve already ponied up. Who’s going to pick up that tab? Citizen Alert? The utility customers? The taxpayers in general? Or will Nevada’s congressional delegation offer up a federal casino tax to offset the costs of keeping nuclear waste out of its logical resting place?

It would be refreshing to hear some of these sticking points addressed, rather than more of the same posturing about how our representatives are fighting the good fight of proving Congress can’t be trusted.u

Dan Steninger is the Editorial Page Editor for the Elko Daily Free Press.


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