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Mary McGrory

Out of Sight . . .

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, July 11, 2002; Page A21

Harry Reid stood in the first row of the Senate with bowed head and hands loosely clasped before him as the ayes for the Yucca Mountain repository rained down on him. The Democratic whip can count, and he had known for days that he was being beaten -- by White House pressure, the power of the nuclear industry and ingratitude. The humble, natty man who rescued his party from stewing in the shadows -- he gave his gavel as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee to Jim Jeffords and made the Senate Democratic -- had done everything he could, but it was not enough. A last-minute caucus plea to his colleagues to help another state's cause -- as he had so often done -- changed no minds. And Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," which he read just before the roll call, couldn't stem the tide.

Fifteen Democrats, understandably attracted to the notion of shipping their states' nuclear waste to another state, deserted him. The vote was 60 to 39.

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Reid and his Nevada colleague, John Ensign, one of only three Republicans to say no, met senators singly and in groups, arguing that a solution was not at hand: Yucca's storage capacity of 70,000 metric tons of waste will be oversubscribed even before it opens for business in 2010. Right now, the waste from 103 nuclear plants amounts to 50,000 metric tons, and with 7,000 metric tons of military waste, no space will be left. Ensign finally got an admission from his opponents that they were not really solving anything. But they contended that even if only half of the waste is stored in the Nevada dumpster, while more is being produced, it's better than leaving it all on site, where voters can see it and worry.

Senators didn't spend much time worrying about the fact that they were giving the green light to the nuclear power industry, which wants 20 more nuclear plants operating as soon as possible. The Republican caucus lunch did not take up the subject. They had already had a showdown on doomsday a few weeks ago and had moved on.

Democratic minds were plainly more on Wall Street. They had listened to George Bush's reproachful speech to tycoons and found it wanting. They talked about a sterner bill written by Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland. Harry Reid didn't get a chance to launch his impassioned appeal until almost 2 o'clock, when senators had begun drifting away.

Democrats have been turned on by President Bush's electrifying announcement on Monday that he had discovered the color gray. The anti-terrorism crusader, who sees the world in black and white -- in Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East, you're either with us or against us -- has lost his moral clarity, which can happen to a president's son who files an SEC report eight months late. His own experience with corporate responsibility had left him with the thought that "in the corporate world, some things aren't exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures."

Democrats think that, for the first time, Bush has been singed by an issue that is made for them and the November election. The Bush closeness to CEOs who played fast and loose with people's pension money has raised the hope that the November campaign could turn not on military operations but on operators who have been fleecing the two-thirds of Americans who invest in the stock market. Wall Street gave the speech a thumbs down. The moguls thought he was doing too much; the man in the street thought he was not doing enough. The Dow Jones slid 178 points.

Harry Reid thought for a while that Americans would snap to on the subject of Yucca when they realized that radioactive trucks would be roaring through their neighborhoods. He had a big lift from the enviros, who set up a Web site that showed the exact distance from your home and your children's school that the waste would travel. God threw in an earthquake at a nearby mountain, and two Democratic freshmen women senators declared their intention to vote against Yucca. Jean Carnahan, widow of Missouri's late governor, was reminded of her husband's problems with truckers transporting medical waste and arriving in Kansas City during rush hour. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan got off the Yucca bus when she was told by the Department of Energy that it was considering sending waste from Michigan plants across Lake Michigan, the state's crown jewel, on barges.

But Trent Lott says the discussion has gone on long enough, George Bush has scored another legislative triumph and the Senate has said it has found the solution. The rest of us have to hope it won't blow up in our faces.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company