A Democratic senator goes nuclear on the White House

Nevada's Harry Reid talks with Salon about why he joined the GAO lawsuit against Dick Cheney and why he called George W. Bush a liar.

By Jake Tapper

Published March 2, 2002 1:14AM (EST)

It's nuclear war. Or nuclear waste war, at any rate. It began on Feb. 15, when President Bush announced that he would formally recommend Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the site where the United States would bury its nuclear waste. And it has accelerated this week, as Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, filed a "friend of the court" brief with the General Accounting Office's lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney. The GAO -- and Sen. Reid -- want to know more about the private meetings Cheney held with energy executives as the administration was developing its energy policy.

That information, Reid believes, will explain the Yucca Mountain decision. "President Bush has broken his promise," said an angry Reid shortly after the White House decision. "All Americans should be concerned, not just because he lied to me or the people of Nevada and indeed all Americans, but because the president's decision threatens American lives."

The next day, according to a knowledgeable source, White House chief of staff Andrew Card called Reid three times to discuss why the senator had called the president a liar. Reid did not return any of the calls. But Reid obviously stands by his words. During the presidential campaign, Bush assured Nevada's citizens that he would not ship nuclear waste to any proposed site "unless it's been deemed scientifically safe" -- a vow, says Reid, that he made to win Nevada, a state whose electoral votes he desperately needed (and ended up carrying by just 3.4 percent).

Nevada politicians have long fought attempts to turn their state into a dumping ground for the 77,000 tons of nuclear waste stockpiled throughout the country (as well as the 2,000 tons of new waste generated each year). Since Congress picked Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site in 1987, more than $4 billion has been spent, by some estimates, on studying the suitability of the site. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told reporters, "It is my strong belief the science supports the safe use of this repository." But Reid cites the General Accounting Office, the Inspector General of the Department of Energy, the Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board as all having raised various concerns about the decision to proceed with the Yucca Mountain site.

The decision is anything but final; GOP Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn has 60 days to object to the decision; he is expected to formally file his objections to the choice by April. Congress will then have approximately three months to override Guinn's objections, which promises to be a tough fight.

In the meantime, Reid is convinced that the task force list will explain what went wrong. "There is no question that Vice President Cheney met on several occasions with nuclear power executives," Reid said on Monday. He charged that after energy executives met with Cheney's task force, Bush "flip-flopped on the issue, and I think these meetings had something to do with it."

The White House vehemently denies Reid's assertions. "The president made the right decision for the country, after a thorough review by the EPA and the Department of Energy found the site to be scientifically safe," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told Salon. "As far as the issue of the lawsuit, we welcome the opportunity to fight for the important principle of the president being able to get open and candid advice to make sound public policy decisions."

On Thursday afternoon, Salon talked with Sen. Reid about the growing legal battle with the White House.

It's a fairly bold move, suing the administration. How did you make this decision?

I feel that President Bush was elected president of the United States because he carried Nevada. And he carried Nevada in an unusual way. He came to Nevada once during the entire campaign. He came to Lake Tahoe. And he refused to answer questions from reporters because of the nuclear waste issue. Al Gore was way out in front on the nuclear waste issue, and he was way out in front in state polls. So later in the campaign Bush sent Cheney to the state a couple times to say that they would be just like Clinton and Gore on the issue and the decision would be only based on sound science.

Since then there have been scientific reports about Yucca Mountain. GAO reported that there are 292 investigative reports about the site that have not been done. The Nuclear Waste Review Board has said that the science surrounding the decision to store waste at Yucca Mountain is poor.

But Energy Secretary Abraham has said the opposite.

There is an absolute, determined conflict of interest at the Department of Energy because Spence Abraham gets legal advice from the law firm Winston and Strawn, which is also advising the Nuclear Energy Institute, which is the umbrella for the nuclear power industry.

Anyway, the reason I've taken this step is because I feel that the president misled the state of Nevada. He didn't tell the truth. I also believe that the meetings Vice President Cheney had with energy executives where he came up with the energy policy of this country could have been a determining factor in the recommendation President Bush gave [about Yucca Mountain]. We do know that Cheney met with a significant number of nuclear power generators. We want to find out who [he] met with, what happened in the meetings, what they discussed.

The Democrats in the Senate and the House have been criticized by some commentators for being timid in their criticisms of Bush and Cheney. You, on the other hand, are suing them.

Here's how I feel about that: I know a war is going on. I understand that; I appreciate that. And I think the Democratic leadership has been coming together to try to solve our problems. But despite the war going on, this is not a dictatorship. The government is three separate but equal branches of government. I have just as much of a right to speak out as the president does. The fact that he's popular right now doesn't mean I won't speak out about things I disagree with him on.

What's been the reaction from your fellow Democrats to the lawsuit?

I have heard from my friends in just the last few days. They've told me that they're glad I did it. It's kind of "Follow me, I'm right behind ya."

Any reaction from Republican colleagues?

I haven't had any of those coming over and patting me on the back.

There are risks involved in suing the administration. You might be known as litigious. Might be dismissed that way. Have any political consultants expressed to you a fear of your becoming the Dan Burton of the Senate?

No, that doesn't bother me. I'm a lawyer; I've been to court lots and lots of times. It was my business 20 years ago. I try to be judicious when I criticize courts or when I attempt in some manner to use the courts.

Do you actually suspect that something fishy occurred during those energy task force meetings?

Of course I do, absolutely. I think this administration is so tight with the oil companies and the powerful utilities in our nation that we have an energy policy that's been dictated through Cheney that is now the word on the street that the administration is pushing. Sure it's fishy. Why are they refusing to give us this information? If it isn't fishy then it appears fishy just because they won't give us the stuff.

Now Bush supporters behind the scenes are arguing that Congress has exempted itself from many of the laws requiring the disclosure of deliberative advice, the Freedom of Information Act, and other sunshine laws that require politicians to disclose whom they get advice from. Is it fair to ask the White House to live up to a standard from which Congress exempted itself?

This is such an old-fashioned statement. It sounds like they've gone back and picked a page or two from Newt Gingrich's notebook. We're a separate but equal branch of government. The president has the right through his tremendous powers to do all kinds of things when it comes to rulemaking and meetings held. And we have the right to ask about it. For them to ask why don't we disclose is so amateurish it's hardly worth a retort.

The White House considers itself to be fighting for a principle, that the president ought to be able to receive open and candid advice without interference from others. That they should be able to make public policy decisions free from politics.

There's no question that the president and the vice president receive tons of private information to help them develop policy. Either one-on-one people come to see them, or from their staff after people come to visit with their staff.

But here it's a different situation. The president of the United States set up an energy task force to come up with an energy plan for the nation. He assigned as the head of that Cheney. You remember the bucket of tears they cried when Hillary Clinton was coming up with the healthcare policy and she was forced to turn over her records. You can't speak out of both sides of your mouth on this. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

It's totally different from information they receive to come up with the policy for Afghanistan. It's different than the policy as to what he's doing with the Cabinet and those meetings -- those are private. We understand that. But this is different, this is a task force.

An argument I've heard you make is that the action of shipping nuclear waste across the country -- requiring maybe 100,000 trucks going through 42 states -- is dangerous. But others argue that tons of high-level, highly radioactive nuclear waste have been shipped cross-country without incident. Have there been incidents that alarm you?

There are a number of examples of environmental groups following these trucks, knowing where they are, and they easily could have done something mischievous or something very bad to these trucks. Frankly I can't think of any incidents with high-level nuclear waste but we recently had one with low-level nuclear waste in West Wendover on the Utah-Nevada border. A truck was leaking nuclear waste; it just happens. And that example is one we know about; there are a number we don't know about because they keep 'em quiet. There was a serious incident they found with nuclear waste being shipped from West Valley, N.Y. So the answer is yes, I know of incidents.

And go back a few short months ago. There was a tunnel in Baltimore that caught fire and burned for a week. Trains go through that; that was a train tunnel. This will be 77,000 spent fuel rods going through the country. With Sept. 11, with terrorists looking for targets of opportunity, this will be thousands of trucks and thousands of trains and thousands of targets of opportunity. We know you can pierce one of these canisters with a military weapon, one that an individual can fire.

But is keeping the waste where it is necessarily any safer? There are 131 nuclear power plants in 39 states. "More than 161 million people live within 75 miles of one or more of these sites," Abraham said, arguing that it would be better to secure the waste in one location than in 131 different locations.

This guy's a Harvard Law grad; he should go work on his script a little better. He uses this argument, that we've gotta have it in one site instead of 130. But we're always gonna have those 130 sites - they're still producing energy! They're not going to go away. This is simply foolish.

Another thing these people, these Harvard lawyers, say is, "Well then what should we do with it?" Leave it where it is. These are dry cast storage containers that are easy to secure, and cheap to secure for the next 100 years. I'm confident that then the great scientific minds of America can determine something over the next few decades as to what to do with the spent fuel rods.

The one question you haven't asked me is, am I afraid of White House retribution. Of course I am but you do what you have to sometimes.

One last one then. Your state went for Bush in 2000. You think that will happen in 2004?

Not a chance. And we've got one more electoral vote now. He doesn't care; he doesn't need Nevada anymore -- I guess that's the reasoning. But he would not be president without having carried Nevada.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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