Jan. 31, 1998, was the day the federal government was supposed to begin shipping the nation's nuclear waste to a secure repository beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Yet today, the spent fuel -- some 45,000 tons and counting -- still sits at the 103 nuclear power plants around the country. The reason: Harry Reid. The former boxer and three-term senator from Searchlight, Nev., has successfully delayed the establishment of a central nuclear-waste dump in his state for more than a decade.
With the Bush Administration expected to approve the project this winter, Reid is about to face his toughest test. When the White House approves the repository and the state of Nevada objects, the issue will go to an up-or-down vote in Congress. Reid will have to convince his colleagues that transporting the radioactive waste across the country poses a greater risk to national security than storing it at nuke plants. In late November, Majority Whip Reid spoke to BusinessWeek Correspondent Laura Cohn about the challenge he faces, his strategy, and what he'll do if he loses. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: The nuclear power industry is hoping lawmakers will vote to ship the waste out of their states, especially in light of the events of September 11. But you say transporting the waste through 43 states poses a greater risk to national security.
A: Nuclear waste isn't going to suddenly appear at Yucca Mountain overnight. It has to be hauled on the highways and the railways of this country. There are more than 50 million people living along those highways and railways. They're all afraid of this. And now, with September 11, people are even more frightened.
Q: Has the government ever tested the vulnerability of nuclear waste being shipped around the country?
A: They say it's safe, but of course it isn't. We know what terrorists can do. And if you're in an accident going more than 40 miles per hour, the containers will breach. If you have a fire that burns more than 1,200 degrees, the containers will breach. Diesel fuel burns much hotter than that, so a lot of things that they've [said] just simply are wrong.
Q: Do you have the votes to have this issue go your way?
A: It's going to be a real uphill battle.
Q: So will you be able to block the Yucca project?
A: Well, we're going to do our best. You know, I don't like to say what we can do when I'm not sure. I'll just do the best I can.
Q: People who know you well say you've brought disparate camps together on other issues, like your resolution of the fight over water rights in your state. How did you do that?
A: The most important thing was [to tell] everyone -- all the various parties -- that we weren't going to do deals with them alone. If I had a meeting with somebody, I would tell everybody else the meeting was going on.
Each thing you do is different. This nuclear waste thing is different than other things. A tremendous amount of money [is in] the nuclear power industry, which has [made this] very difficult. For example, now they've gotten the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to hire Geraldine Ferraro and John Sununu. That's just all money-driven. That's what we've been fighting all this time because they have unlimited sources of money.
Q: What if you lose the Yucca issue? Will you fight for some sort of a monetary concession for Nevada?
A: I'm not interested in concessions to Nevada. I have a philosophy that once you've established a price, then you've decided you're a prostitute. We're not going to deal with that under any circumstances. We have no price. Cohn covers energy issues for BusinessWeek in Washington