State and federal regulators and the industries we regulate have donned life jackets. It's as if we are boating down the unexplored Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell1 in 1869. We share a vague...
POLITICS WON OVER PURPOSE AS AN EARLY VOTE on a nuclear waste bill in the U.S. Senate was itself laid to waste, apparently victim of a contested Senate seat in the state where spent fuel would be stored.
The June 2 vote would have limited debate on H.R. 1270. By getting a vote count, the leanings of senators on the bill would have been tested. And the way would have been paved for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to schedule a second, more formal vote on the measure.
But nine Democrats who supported a similar bill last April 15 in a 65-34 count - with one not voting - changed their vote, causing the cloture to go down 56-39. This time around, five senators didn't vote; 60 yeas are needed to invoke the cloture to end a filibuster.
Politics began intervening the day before the Senate tally when Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.) released a statement saying that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) didn't intend to call up the legislation this year. Rep. Gingrich, just minutes before the Senate ballot, released a statement saying it was unlikely the bill would make it past the president's veto to become law. Because of the crowded floor calendar and opposition of some members, he said he didn't expect to schedule floor action this year.
Although Rep. Ensign and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have been united in their fight against interim storage of nuclear waste in their state, one defining factor intervened when it came to the Senate vote on temporary nuclear waste storage: Rep. Ensign is running for Sen. Reid's seat in this year's election. Apparently the outcome of the bill boiled down to that senate race - neither Nevadan wanted to anger constituents and both wanted to lay claim to being the one who aborted the vote. Rep. Ensign got there first with Rep. Gingrich's help, but Sen. Reid may have the last laugh come Election Day.
"It came down to election-year politics," said Derek Jumper, spokesman for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Jumper notes that had the nine Democrats voted as they did last year, there would have been 67 votes for the bill because two Republicans joined proponents. A 67-vote count could have overridden a presidential veto.
The preliminary vote on putting a temporary nuclear waste dump near Nevada's YuccaMountain, proposed site of the permanent repository, also comes just weeks after the Department of Energy offered utilities with nuclear power plants the chance to defer payments into the Nuclear Waste Fund - if they promised not to sue the DOE for not taking spent fuel.
The deferred payments, the DOE reasoned, would allow utilities to invest the money and use the excess to offset costs of on-site storage.
Observers say the timing of DOE's proposal was odd.
Working Toward Compromise
The DOE's May 18 offer came just days before Sen. Lott filed his motion to get the floor vote on the bill calling for temporary storage of more than 28,000 tons of radioactive waste stored at 73 nuclear plants