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Nevada’s Nuclear Poker

Nevada, home of hundreds of casinos, is pretty good at playing its cards. The game is nuclear poker.

Fighting global warming is a top priority for the environmental movement. Next month, leaders from 192 countries will meet in Copenhagen to discuss new targets on carbon emissions. Cutting emissions will require turning more to sources of energy other than fossil fuels. That will mean more reliance on clean, renewable energy sources like wind, hydro and solar power. However, it will probably also mean more reliance on nuclear power.

The big problem with nuclear power is that it comes with nuclear waste, and that waste has to go somewhere. There are currently 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, all of them producing radioactive waste that can take tens of thousands of years to degrade.

The old answer to the question of where to put our country’s nuclear waste was Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The site was chosen in 1987 because of its distance from populated areas and its proximity to an existing nuclear site, Yucca Flat, which was used as a test site from 1951 to 1992.

This year, under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, President Obama declared that storing the waste at Yucca Mountain is no longer an option. The 2010 Fiscal Year budget proposed by the president stated that, "The President ... has made clear that the Nation needs a better solution than the proposed Yucca Mountain repository" and cut the project's budget dramatically.

Now, with one success under its belt, Nevada is pushing further. It wants the federal government to pay for the damage already sustained at Yucca Flat.

The 921 nuclear warheads that were detonated underground at the 1,375-square-mile test site caused a huge environmental impact. According to a study conducted by Thomas S. Buqo, a Nevada hydrogeologist, the tests contaminated 1.6 trillion gallons of water, rendering it unusable. Buqo estimated that, if the water had not been polluted, it might be worth as much as $48 billion. Despite the extent of the damage, the Nevada site ranks low on the nation’s priority list for nuclear clean-ups because there is little risk of the radioactive material spreading to inhabited areas.

Nevada presents itself as a hapless victim of bullying feds who refuse to clean up after themselves. It has not yet made any demands for compensation, but a recent surge of interest in testing presages a possible showdown between the state and the federal government. Marta Adams, the state’s senior deputy attorney general commented, "Once we have the new environmental impact statement, then we will be able to talk about the federal government compensating the state.”

But what Nevada is really after may be bargaining chips rather than cash.

Nevada’s population has been growing rapidly, but, in the arid west, limited access to water curbs potential development. Nevada must share the water from the Lower Colorado River Basin with Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Utah. By pressuring the federal government to restore the lost water from beneath Yucca Flat, Nevada may gain an important ally in its quest to get more of the region’s water.

This is not the first time Nevada has played the environmental card to further its development. In 1998, the state pressed Congress to pass the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, which established a special account at the Treasury for money from the sale of federally owned land in the region surrounding Las Vegas. That money was reserved for projects in the state, specifically buying environmentally sensitive sites from private owners to bring them under state protection

Since then, Nevada has received $2.3 billion from the sale of federal lands, but only 15 percent of that has been used to purchase environmentally sensitive sites. Other conservation projects have also received a slim portion of the money, and some of the projects categorized as conservation have actually been aimed at providing public amenities and attracting tourists. By using money from the federal government to cover many costs that in other places must be picked up by local and state governments, Nevada has been able to keep its taxes low, attracting developers. The purported conservation fund, therefore, has turned out to be a subsidy for development.

While Nevada may have a good poker face at the political card table, the federal government has a few high cards of its own. Washington still owns more than 80 percent of Nevada’s land. If Nevada wants the feds to pay it back for the lost water at Yucca Flat, the U.S. could decide to raise the money by ratcheting up the prices that it charges for grazing and mineral rights on its property.

The federal government is also responsible for the Hoover Dam, without which the city of Las Vegas may never have been more than a railroad and highway junction with a few one-armed bandits. Cheap power and water supplied by the dam made it possible for a neon metropolis to spring up in the middle of the desert.

If Nevadans want to hose the rest of America at the card tables, they may be in for a surprise. We hold better cards than they think we do. It just might be time to tell Democratic senators in our own states that Harry Reid and his fellow Nevadans are getting to be a pretty expensive habit. Gamblers Anonymous, anyone?

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