by Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn
It's a rare day when you see these guys sweat, but the nuclear industry is getting frantic. You can tell by the desperate nature of their recent campaign to push through the senate their plan to ship the nation's commercial nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain outside Las Vegas.
When Bush came to power, the nuke lobby thought they had it made. The days of competition between the oil industry and the nuclear lobby are long gone. Now they all belong to the same conglomerate. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, perhaps only member of the cabinet who requires a more simplified briefing book than Bush, was an old pal, long bought and sold. Bush himself called for more subsidies to nuclear power and reversed his election-eve opposition to the nuke industry's most fervent aspiration: the Yucca Mountain dump.
But 9/11 changed all that. Not immediately, mind you. But as the patriotic hysteria, in which it was deemed un-American to question any Bush proposal, began to recede, people began to conclude that the scheme to truck 77,000 tons of radioactive waste their communities wasn't the brightest idea. Maps of the possible transport routes show that more than 50 million Americans live within one-mile of these nuclear corridors.
Even the rosiest scenario painted by the Department of Energy admits that at least 48 people will die from cancers associated with the passage of these radioactive boxcars. Naturally, that figure doesn't take into account the toll that might result from an act of sabotage or, more likely, a simple train derailment or jack-knifed tractor-trailer truck that sends highly-radioactive waste spilling into rivers, lakes and neighborhoods.
So the nuclear industry had to act fast. It deployed a legion of K Street lobbyists, many with ties to both the Bush administration and big time Democrats, and some of the nation's most craven PR firms to clear the way.
The latest recruit to the nuke team is the US Chamber of Commerce which has beamed a wave of wildly misleading radio ads across the country aimed at securing senate passage of the Yucca Mountain bill. A vote is expected in the next week or two.
The Chamber's ads are little more than focus group tested scare tactics. The ads claim that the Yucca Mountain plan, which enviros have shrewdly dubbed Mobile Chernobyl, is actually a "way to get nuclear waste out of your communities." This is in reference to the nuclear waste now being stored at commercial reactors. Of course, the waste will continue to pile up at those sites as long as the plants operate-and for years after they are mothballed. In fact, all nuclear waste must "cool" for at least five years before they can even consider shipping off somewhere.
Only under the Yucca Mountain bail-out plan, the lethal waste will go transcontinental, rolling through 44 states, plus the District Columbia, passing through communities now far removed from nuclear plants and through states that have decided to reject nuclear power.
The ads also try to calm the public nerve by suggesting that once entombed in the bowels of Yucca Mountain the nuclear waste will be safely contained for all time-or at least 10,000 years. Of course, the Chamber delicately sidesteps the very real question as to whether or not Yucca Mountain isn't in fact a kind of geological sieve. The disposal site sits above of an aquifer that is becoming more and more important as a source of drinking water for the ever-expanding Las Vegas metro area. Even the DOE's own geological investigations reveal that the earthquake prone nature of the Yucca Mountain site may creature fissures in the earth that will allow the waste to seep into the underground reservoir.
There are signs that the public is beginning to awaken from the near catatonic state it has slumbered in sense the 9/11 attacks. The collapse of the stock market, the insider trading scandals, the looting of 401-Ks, mounting lay-offs, the gruesome failures of the Bush war machine, Ashcroft's assault on the constitution, the lack of an even-handed plan for Middle East peace the list of troubles grows daily. With the Yucca Mountain vote approaching any day, there's a chance to strike back and begin to set things right.
All it would take to defeat the nuclear lobby, and give the Bush administration a deserved black eye, is for a handful of senators to launch and sustain a filibuster. In the past, Democrats have rushed to the nuclear industry's rescue. An April 28th survey by the Las Vegas Review showed that 11 Democratic senators supported the project, including such luminaries as John Edwards, Patty Murray and Ernest Hollings. Others said were undecided, including Paul Wellstone. Now's the time to see if the likes of Wellstone, the self-professed savoir of progressive causes, really have the courage and the skill to monkeywrench the system. The atomic clock is ticking.
Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair are the authors of 5 Days that Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000), and the editors of Counterpunch, the nation's best muckraking newsletter: www.counterpunch.org