Column: Not in My Backyard

News at Home

Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia. He is a columnist for HNN.

For the last 70 years, Nevada has been neither a Democrat state nor a Republican state. It has consistently been the gambling state. The voters--only a handful of whom have been born in the state, have tolerated--and voted for--both very liberal and very conservative candidates for state and federal office. Taking their cues from a gambling industry which invests heavily in political campaigns, the voters have never tolerated candidates who show independence or weakness vis-a-vis the real"party line," ergo, the full-fledged support of casino gambling, as determined by the casino industry.

But now the state has a new bottomline" critical issue." Now all aspiring politicians must rally around another cause as well. They must be willing to"go to the mat" to show that they oppose having nuclear waste brought to the state and put into a repository at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas."No Nuclear Waste," and"Nevada is not a Wasteland," have become the battle cries of our public leaders and also of our populace.

There are many ironies regarding the new rigid stance taken by the state. The first irony concerns the vehemence with which the leaders and followers seek to protect"their" land, and the vehemence with which they cry out that"Nevada has already done its share," for the nation. What does"our" land mean, anyway? Not one of the five most recent governors of Nevada was born in the state. Only 6 percent of the adults of southern Nevada (Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County) were born in the state. Statewide, 13 percent of the population is native born, the smallest percentage among all 50 states. The average resident of southern Nevada came to the state (or was born in the state) in 1991. Yet majorities loudly protest that the waste which may be placed in"our" desert lands 100 miles away will destroy"our" quality of life, to say nothing about destroying the influx of tourist dollars to Las Vegas. We do get 36 million visitors per year.

Very few of the new residents, and almost none of the tourists has ever driven by the lands where the waste may be stored. The lands are miles away from the road running 450 miles to Carson City, Tahoe and Reno, and most people going that way fly. We are simply not familiar with"our" lands.

A second irony concerns the lands with which we are familiar--lands within the Las Vegas metropolitan area. Here we almost categorically refuse to take ownership over"quality of life" issues. There is almost zero political or public outcry about the many social maladies that beset us--high school drop out rates, teen age pregnancies and suicides, adult suicides, smoking and cancer deaths, drunk driving incidents, child abuse and child abuse deaths, myriad addictions including, of course, compulsive gambling. All these factors find Nevada among the nation's leaders (on the wrong side of the equation). Yet no casino dollar has been given to a candidate in order to make an appeal that might address these"problems" for"our" land. The nuclear waste issue also preempts concerns about the real crises of high malpractice insurance rates prompting doctors to leave Las Vegas, and also the minimal numbers of nurses in the state--the lowest number per capita in America. (Las Vegas Review Journal, February 24, 2001; March 6, 2002).

A third irony concerns the notion of"ownership" of the desert lands and the desires to keep the lands free of nuclear contaminants and the political history of the state. The actions of politicians (acting with public support) over the years since 1930 (around when full casino gambling was legalized throughout the state) belie concerns for a clean earth policy. The politicians and then-residents of the state eagerly sought out federal selection for a variety of military and defense projects including ones involving nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Federal military-related programs are the second biggest sector of the state economy.

Hawthorne had 250 residents in 1920 and it was headed toward becoming another Nevada ghost town. However, a disaster at a New Jersey Navy ammunition depot presented an opportunity. U.S. Senator Tasker Oddie and Representative Samuel Arentz (both of Nevada) persuaded the department of war to place a new ammunition facility in the dry desert terrain of Hawthorne. Now an Army ammunition site, the depot still provides the economic basis for the small city. (Hulse, The Silver State, 1991, pp. 333-5).

The Army Air Corps placed a training facility just north of Las Vegas in 1942. After World War Two state political leaders including the late Howard Cannon used their seniority to have Nellis Air Force Base made the essential jet flight training school as well as air gunnery (live fire) range for our military. Cannon also worked hard for the placement of an MX missile defense system in the state, but on that score he did not have universal support among the population, albeit many in Las Vegas were counting the dollars expected to come with a real estate boom and 100,000 new residents. Other air stations have been placed near Reno, in Fallon and at Wendover, on the Utah state border. (Hulse, pp.214-5, 271).

At the conclusion of World War Two a program of testing nuclear weapons began on several Pacific Ocean islands. However, logistics made planning and execution of the tests somewhat inconvenient. In 1950 President Truman secretly planned to move the tests to a site within the United States. A site adjacent to the Nellis gunnery range at Yucca Flats in the Nevada desert was selected. The first atmospheric bomb test was made on January 27, 1951. From then until atmospheric tests were finally stopped in December 1962 (and banned by a treaty in August 1963), over 100 bombs were dropped above the ground. Between 1963 and 1993 about 800 more tests were conducted underground. (In all there were 928 tests in Nevada). However, nuclear materials were vented into the atmosphere in at least 200 cases with underground tests, with some of these tests propelling nuclear particles off of the test site. (LeBaron, America's Nuclear Legacy, 1998, p. 70).

While the selection of the site was made in secret, it cannot be said that the decision was opposed by Nevadans. Powerful U. S. Senator Patrick McCarren supported the move entirely, as did residents who saw the Nevada Test Site as a great source of economic benefit for the state. UNLV Political Scientist A. C. (Dina) Titus wrote in her book Bombs in the Backyard (1986),"...the southern Nevada papers strongly endorsed the testing program, presenting the public with positive headlines and patriotic editorials....state officials at every level were eager to accommodate the needs of the new facility which brought in federal dollars." She added that press coverage"failed to address more serious questions about the possible harmful effects of fallout." (p. xiii).

Residents did not protest. Instead they held parties at the edge of the city from whence they could see the flash of a nuclear blast, and if they were"lucky" they could view the mushroom cloud. Indeed, a fiery nuclear cloud was the symbol found on the Clark County official seal in the 1950s. Casinos held promotional events tied to the explosions. In 1957, the Sands, home of the"Rat Pack," held a"Miss Atomic Bomb" contest with the winner decked out in a scantily-sized bathing suit which was shaped like a mushroom cloud. (Titus, p. 93).

The same year, according to Titus (p. 97), the Nevada state senate passed resolutions asking the federal government to"build an experimental nuclear-power generating plant" in the state, and also to use the Naval Ammunition Depot at Hawthorne to store"nonconventional weapons."

The residents downwind from the atmospheric tests, most of whom lived in Utah, were not as"lucky." Actually the American public has not been lucky. One federal study reveals that it is likely that nuclear weapons tests have caused at least 15,000 cancer deaths in the United States. (USA Today, February 28, 2002).

To be sure, the negative effects of the nuclear radiation were not fully addressed. Perhaps now the political establishment is making up for that early neglect with its rigid"no waste" policy. However, by the 1950s the effects of radiation poisoning were known, and certainly results of the atmospheric"tests" over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were rather public.

In 1984 when presidential candidate Gary Hart stated that he would seek a moratorium on underground testing, Nevada organized labor immediately attacked him. His Nevada campaign headquarters disavowed the stance. In 1992 state political leaders while already nearly unanimous in opposition to the placing of even low level nuclear waste in Nevada, stepped forth to protest the stopping of underground nuclear tests, and they lobbied hard to make sure the Test Site itself was not closed down. At its peak time of operations the Nevada Test Site facilities did provide employment (with support jobs) for over 18,000 Nevadans. (Titus, 68, 100).

Alas when underground tests were stopped, Nevada officials sought more nuclear projects for the state. In 1995, the states two U.S. Senators, Harry Reid and Richard Bryan both protested when Savannah River, South Carolina was selected over the Nevada Test Site to have a multi-billion dollar radioactive gas production plant."This is one of the types of things that gives Congress the bad name it now has," Reid opined. Bryan added,"This is abominable public policy." They claimed that Nevada lost the nuclear project because of"pork barreling." (LVRJ, August 5, 1995).

In 1996 the state's congressional delegation also protested when Congress determined that tests at the site would be permanently banned. Senator Reid sought an amendment allowing the president to authorize a test on his own when he deemed it necessary. Reid was roundly criticized by Nevada environmentalists and groups such as Greenpeace for his actions seeking continued testing. (LVRJ, June 27, 1996).

As an aside, in November 1997, the Nevada legislature passed a resolution asking the Smithsonian Institute to return the Enola Gay, the plane from which the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, to Wendover, Nevada, where it was located before flying to Tinian Island and then Japan. The legislature thought it would be a wonderful exhibit to use to attract tourists to the desert town. Things we like to celebrate! No wonder Halloween is a state holiday. (LVRJ, November 14, 1997).

By the 1980s the nation had 78 Nuclear energy facilities. Waste materials were beginning to be amassed at each of the sites. The waste is now stored in cooling ponds at the reactor sites. However if the ponds become filled, the waste will have to be in above the ground dry containers. The manner of storage in both cases is not totally secure. The waste materials are subject to weather disturbances (tornados and floods), as well as earthquakes and even volcanic eruptions. The events of September 11 also raise concerns that the multiplicity of sites would be more vulnerable to sabotage. That thinking was also present in 1982 when Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The act provided for the creation of a waste storage site by 1998. The site would be paid for by taxes on the nuclear facilities. At first three potential sites would be selected and studied for feasibility. Then the president would pick one of the sites, after which the host state's governor could veto the plan. The veto could be overturned by majority votes in both houses of congress. Sites in Washington State and in Texas were studied along with Yucca Mountain, Nevada. However in a new action, Congress in 1987 passed an act that limited study to the single site at Yucca Mountain. Political leaders in Nevada called this law, not affectionately, the"Screw Nevada" Law. In 1989, the law was changed again, this time putting a date of 2010 for the opening of the waste facility. (Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1995).

In February (this year), President Bush selected Yucca Mountain to be the site. Nearly $7 billion had been spent in scientific and other studies of the site. Bush also indicated his choice was based upon concerns about terrorism at the scattered nuclear power facilities. Soon afterwards, Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn vetoed the plan. We now are awaiting action by Congress. Congress has 90 days to override the veto. (LVRJ, February 16, 2002; New York Times, March 9, 2002).

Politics or Science? The answer has to be a simple one: Politics. There is no way to measure the terrorism factor with scientific accuracy. Placement of all waste at Yucca Mountain will afford great security. However, the risky question persists: is it better to keep nuclear waste at 78 power plants (and other military sites) in 39 states, or is it better to transport the materials thousands of miles through 42 states on its journeys to Nevada? Right now, the September 11 fear mentality seeks to reduce the number of major targets, and individual trucks or rail cars carrying waste are not viewed as major targets, albeit many precautions will be taken over the transportation routes.

The Nevada response points to scientific questions about possible long term (measured in hundreds or thousands of years) leakage of materials into water tables in the desert, and also to risks of transportation sabotage or accidents. However, the"group think" psychology of Nevada politics sees voters responding positively to rigid political positions against"all" nuclear waste materials."Political" has to be the conclusion considering the continuing record of the state's support for nuclear testing activity. The same political leaders that are quick to point out how the state has already made its sacrifices (in having politically acceptable and economically beneficial military facilities and nuclear testing facilities), now point to great damage that will be done to the state, its reputation (?), and its citizens' health by having waste stored in the state. They have riled up a population that is quite blasé about social maladies in their neighborhoods to be quite angry about degradation of desert lands that a few years ago were the sites for atmospheric and underground nuclear blasts.

To be sure, this writer absolutely does not want nuclear trucks or rail cars moving through the populated Las Vegas metropolitan area. (Alternative routes are possible.) At the same time he would like to see some political concern for the social pollution and the impending medical services crisis in our populated communities as well. And that view, consistent with long standing views in Nevada politics, is neither Democrat nor Republican.

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