Nuke dump in the neighborhood? Let's make a deal

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

There aren't any "Yucca Yes" yard signs popping up beside the "Dump the Dump" posters, and few Nevadans are actually excited about the prospect of becoming neighbors to hazardous material that takes 10,000 years to decay.

Yet as state and local leaders continue to divert millions of dollars from other priorities to stop Yucca Mountain from becoming the national nuclear-waste dump, the public's fervor on the issue may be hitting its half-life – and even morphing into a what's-in-it-for-us bargaining spirit.

"We don't want it, but we're going to get it," says blackjack dealer Daniel McClain of the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, who moved here six years ago from Vermont. "It doesn't make sense to me to keep spending money to stop something that is unstoppable."

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In a January poll, 68 percent of Nevadans agreed that Yucca is inevitable, reflecting the resignation setting in.

President Bush and the Department of Energy enthusiastically back the plan to ship 77,000 tons of nuclear waste from 103 power plants in 34 other states to Nevada's desolate desert ridge, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. With the House of Representatives voting 306 to 117 in early May to override Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn's veto of the site, all that remains is for the Senate to follow, as expected, with a majority, and make Guinn's action irrelevant.

The Republican governor and others continue to huff about the doom the nuclear repository would bring, although the prospect hasn't abated mass migration to this fastest-growing region in the US.

Having ineffectively complained that Yucca represents an unfair imposition by bully states, antidump forces are now focusing on the safety hazards of trucking the waste on interstates that pass through other population centers.

This battle is costly: The Legislature in April put $3 million more into the fund for lobbyists and an advertising campaign, even as the state faces a $10 million budget shortfall. Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, tossed in $1.5 million the following week. Some private citizens, too, are donating heavily, most notably Dorothy Lemelson of Incline Village, Nev., widow of the scientist who held patents for the Walkman, camcorder, cordless phone, and fax machine. She gave $75,000.

But others are starting to question the value of such a struggle, with budgetary needs on hold. For example, a $500,000 state pilot program to help homeless people who are mentally ill has been postponed. So has a long-promised $280,000 courthouse for the tiny southern Nevada town of Goodsprings. Even $370,000 in new fire-department equipment is on the back burner.

"We've known since we moved here 20 years ago that Yucca was going to become the site," says David Brown, a real estate agent who moved to Las Vegas in the early 1980s. "I think we should see what we can get for it at this point."

That notion, once a political third rail that helped sink the campaign of a prominent Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1998, is no longer so taboo.

Guinn's own party's platform this year includes a plank that states: "We support Nevada's elected officials' fight against the Yucca Mountain project, but in the event the battle is lost, we urge Nevada public officials to work with the Bush administration for the maximum benefit for Nevada."

All this is vindication for former Republican Gov. Robert List, who last year signed on as a paid consultant for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a pro-Yucca interest group. Castigated then as a traitor to the state he led from 1979 to 1983, Governor List maintains he took the job once he concluded that the fight was a waste of energy and political capital.

"There is a major sea change going on in the public's attitude," Mr. List says. "There's not a mood swing that says we welcome Yucca Mountain.... But what is occurring is the growing sense of inevitability ..., coupled with a recognition that if it's going to happen, we better step up and take advantage of it."

List believes the $60 billion in construction contracts associated with Yucca could do wonders for Nevada's economy, diversifying it and helping to pay for Las Vegas' dizzying population growth. And he suggests Yucca could become a "reverse Comstock Lode," with the Silver State able to sell off the nuclear waste if and when the industry figures out how to recycle it into new power.

The former governor remains firmly in the minority among elected leaders, most of whom insist they'll muck up the course to Yucca. But there are also signs that some Nevadans are willing to embrace the state's connection to all things nuclear. The Legislature approved a design this spring for a specialty mushroom-cloud license plate in honor of the Nevada Test Site, where atomic bombs were set off regularly for decades, and families watched as they enjoyed desert picnics.

"You wouldn't find California trying to memorialize something like this, but this is our past," license plate design-contest winner Rick Bibbero told the Las Vegas Sun. "Nevada being Nevada, this is a unique subject."

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