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Pulling the Switch 

Vermonters got a glimpse into the political future last week when the U.S. Senate voted 60-39 in favor of shipping the nation’s nuclear waste to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. While the en- dorsement wasn’t unexpected news here in Vermont, the votes of our two U.S. senators certainly were.

Independent James Jeffords, a man who staunchly favors nuclear power and previously supported the Yucca depository, surprised many by voting against shipping 77,000 tons of nuke waste to the deep underbelly of the mountain. The usually anti-nuclear Patrick Leahy joined only 15 of his Democratic colleagues by voting in favor of the dump.

The good news for environmentalists is that it showed, once again, that Jeffords was serious when he pledged to be a thorn in the right-wing side of the Bush administration. The bad news is that Jeffords’ slide to the left on environmental matters is being countered by Leahy’s apparent slide to the right.

“Jeffords voted his heart,” said David Pyles of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, “and Leahy played politics by doing Governor Dean and the utility corporations a favor in the short term.”

The Yucca Mountain depository has been on the drawing board for 20 years, costing taxpayers a cool $7 billion to date with a final pricetag of more than $58 billion. Even if numerous regulatory hurdles are cleared, the depository isn’t scheduled to open until 2010 and won’t come close to handling all the high-level nuclear waste the nation is currently sitting on.

“I have supported the Yucca Mountain proposal in the past, in the belief that it would resolve the problem and contain both our past and future nuclear waste,” Jeffords declared on the floor of the Senate. “However, the truth is that Yucca Mountain will not provide this solution.”

As chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, Jeffords provided a potential double victory for environmentalists with his opposing vote. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and leader of the anti-Yucca-Mountain brigade in the Senate, apparently made a deal with Jeffords. If the Vermont senator stood with him against Yucca, he’d assist Jeffords in his efforts to strengthen the Clean Air Act.

Leahy, on the other hand, put out a long and convoluted statement defending his vote in favor of what environmentalists have dubbed the “mobile Chernobyl” solution to nuke waste. Something needed to be done with the waste, Leahy reasoned, and Nevada’s backyard was better than ours.

It’s this kind of thinking that drives Nevada residents crazy, and it’s the primary reason why the state’s governor and most of its political delegation have been vehemently opposed to the waste dump. Yucca Mountain is within striking distance of Las Vegas and sits on land considered sacred by the Western Shoshone Nation.

“It’s in our back yard and it’s in our front yard,” said Corbin Harney, a Western Shoshone leader. “This nuclear contamination is shortening all life. We’re going to have to unite as a people and say, “No more!’”

While Leahy would like Vermonters to believe that his vote will get the nuclear waste out of our state and off the banks of the Connecticut River, Jeffords was providing the more honest assessment.

“Vermonters need to know,” said Jeffords, “nuclear waste will, in all likelihood, be stored on the banks of the Connecticut River even after Yucca Mountain opens.”

So why would Leahy vote for what Jeffords called a “false solution?” In a word: politics.

Leahy doesn’t beat around the bush. “Governor Dean and the Vermont Public Service Department have consistently called on me to support the repository,” he declared. “And today I again respect the wishes and long-term interests of my state.”

That little political nod to the governor is certainly an effort to boost Dean’s fledgling presidential campaign, particularly in the all-important realm of fundraising. It’s no secret that Dean enjoys a cozy relationship with Vermont’s utility corporations. Nearly 20 percent of the early money he raised for his presidential political action committee came from individuals with ties to those entities.

Robert Young, the CEO of Central Vermont Public Service Corporation and the chairman of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation, is on record as contributing the maximum of $5000 to Dean’s presidential campaign. The company’s vice president, Robert Rogan, was also an early financial supporter. Ditto the two top executives at the Green Mountain Power Corporation: CEO Christopher Dutton and Vice-President Stephen Terry.

All these utility corporations lobbied heavily in favor of Yucca Mountain, mostly so as to clear the way for more nuclear power generation in Vermont, a prospect that will bring — no surprise — more nuclear waste.

As for Leahy, his vote amounts to a small wager. Dean might just get close enough to the White House to throw a few political bones his way. How much of a stretch would it be to suggest “President Dean” might promote Leahy from Senator-for-life to, say, Attorney General? Supreme Court Justice? Meanwhile, the nation is on the verge of bailing out the nuclear industry — again. Leahy and Jeffords both struck out when it comes to calling for the ultimate solution to the waste problem: Stop making it in the first place.

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Michael Colby

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