‘West Wing’ Fallout

Donald F. Kettl
Donald Kettl
Donald F. Kettl Donald F. Kettl is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution as well as Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy

June 1, 2002

New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson wanted to make sure his constituents didn’t worry about how real the April 3 episode of NBC’s popular drama, “The West Wing,” might appear to be. He told citizens that the fiery crash of a truck carrying spent nuclear fuel rods was “completely fictional.” Nevada’s emergency responders, he said in a press release, “are trained to deal with any possible problems.”

Governor Johnson found himself straddling a strange line between TV fiction and real-life fact. The nation’s ongoing battles about what to do with nuclear waste are more amazing than anything fiction could produce. Power companies once promised that nuclear power would be too cheap to meter and that they could reprocess used fuel. In fact, nuclear power never became cheap and the reprocessing industry never became cost effective. Used fuel rods piled up in temporary underwater pools near their reactors. They have to be put somewhere, since they remain dangerously radioactive for at least 10,000 years. Storage pools are short-term solutions at best.

Years ago, the federal government promised to put the fuel rods into a permanent storage facility in a stable underground geological formation. For federal scientists, the ideal answer seemed to be Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a desolate ridge at the edge of the federal atomic weapons test site. But after 20 years of study and $7 billion of research, the Yucca Mountain facility has yet to open. The fuel rods are piling up at more than 100 facilities around the country, and power companies are worried about what to do with them.

The longer scientists looked at Yucca Mountain, the less sure they became about how well it would work. The area suffered an earthquake in 1992, and the region has a history of volcanoes. Water could seep into the storage area and corrode the casks.

As the science has become more uncertain, the politics have become clearer. Nevada has the usual two senators but only two members in the House of Representatives—and there are 433 other representatives who don’t want the fuel rods in their states. The act Congress passed to place the waste at Yucca allows Nevada’s governor to veto the plan. Not surprisingly, Governor Kenny Guinn did do so. Congress can override the veto, and it’s likely that it will do so.

When the nation’s founders wrote the Constitution back in 1787, they worried that larger, more populous states could gang up on smaller ones. They never anticipated issues such as nuclear-waste storage, yet they’d certainly recognize the battles.

For Nevada’s campaign to stop Yucca Mountain, the “West Wing” episode was a godsend. The state launched a media campaign pointing out that the plan would require thousands of waste shipments through 43 states and suggesting that the “West Wing” accident scenario could be repeated hundreds of times.

Those worries strengthened the hand of Democratic Whip Harry Reid, who has led the campaign among Democrats to stop Yucca Mountain. Reid had surrendered his chairmanship of the Senate environment committee to Senator Jim Jeffords when Jeffords left the Republican Party. That cemented the Democrats’ takeover of the Senate. Reid’s colleagues had a hard time rejecting his case against Yucca Mountain after his sacrifice turned so many Democrats into committee chairmen.

Congressional Republicans faced their own dilemma. President Bush had joined them in supporting the Yucca plan. But that meant going against Republican Governor Guinn and jeopardizing key Republican members of Congress in a year when every seat counts toward control of the Senate and House.

Nevada officials recruited two former White House chiefs of staff: Kenneth Duberstein from the Reagan administration and John Podesta from the Clinton team. The nuclear industry signed up the chief of staff for the first Bush administration, John Sununu, and former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. With former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers writing the “West Wing” episode, it was an all-star cast.

Beyond the TV sets and ad campaigns, however, lay deeper issues. Homeland security analysts worried about the risk of leaving the spent fuel at nuclear power plants. The containment buildings at these sites have been hardened to reduce the odds of radiation leaking in case of an accident or a plane crash, but the underwater storage pools contain highly reactive materials in unreinforced buildings. For terrorists tempted to create a “dirty bomb,” the spent fuel rods offer a tempting target.

Science simply can’t answer, with any reasonable certainty, how well the Yucca Mountain facility would perform for thousands of years or how much real risk we face in transporting spent fuel to it. We have to put this stuff somewhere, but the process comes with huge uncertainties. Some of them are concentrated on a small number of citizens for a long time. Many of us will share other risks for a shorter time.

In the end, the scientific quandaries boil down to governance puzzles. They frame problems more intensely than any TV show.