WASHINGTON, D.C. - Atoms have an irresistible inclination to combine.

Good thing, too. If, for instance, two atoms of hydrogen did not regularly combine with one of oxygen, water would not exist, and we would not be having this conversation.

As with physics, so with politics, including the politics of atomic energy, which reared its head the other day when the Energy Department announced that the goop from the used fuel at atomic power plants should be stored under Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada.

The announcement fueled a political chain reaction visible thus far only in Nevada and in some precincts here. But you know how these chain reactions are; this one could have all sorts of ramifications, just possibly including control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The scientific debate over Yucca Mountain may be devilishly complicated, but the politics are simple: Nevadans - a whopping 83 percent of them in one recent poll - don't want the radioactive waste from the nation's 103 nuclear power plants shipped to their state for storage. The electric utility industry insists on it.

Elsewhere, the average person doesn't give a hoot, but the average member of Congress does, especially those from the 35 states where the spent fuel sits in pools near the power plants. The nuclear energy industry has argued, reasonably, that most of the locals would rather get the gunk gone. It has also made campaign contributions. So most politicians are inclined to go along with the industry, especially since the opposition has not agreed on pushing an alternative solution.

But there is little doubt that those who do care about this issue care deeply. As soon as Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced his recommendation to President Bush, those on both sides of the debate went ... well, nuclear.

From Las Vegas, Mayor Oscar Goodman, displaying his city's well-known sense of proportion, described the energy secretary * a decent and honorable fellow - as "that piece of garbage." From Washington, John Sununu, the first President Bush's chief of staff, whose own perception of understatement might be described as Las Vegan, proclaimed that if "Nevada is not willing to do its part in what is part of a national plan for homeland security ... maybe Americans ought to vacation somewhere else."

Sununu is lobbying on behalf of the Yucca Mountain repository for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and both his employer and his reputation indicate how this dispute may transcend itself. The leadership role taken by the U.S. Chamber shows that the corporate establishment in general, not just the utility industry, wants the Yucca Mountain dump. And Sununu's former life as a partisan gut-fighter is a reminder that, though there are Democrats and Republicans on both sides of this issue, it is the Republicans who are now in charge, and who could pay the price.

Though more polite than Mayor Goodman, Nevada's Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn, Sen. John Ensign, and Rep. Jim Gibbons re-stated their opposition to the Yucca Mountain project. Still, it is a Republican administration pushing it, and it is Nevada's Democratic senator, Harry Reid, who leads the opposition.

So it isn't going to be hard for Nevada Democrats to paint themselves as the good guys this fall. Gov. Guinn and Rep. Gibbons seem to be in good political shape. But so, now, does the always-embattled Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley. And so does Clark County Commission Chairman Dario Herrera, the Democratic candidate in Nevada's new congressional district. Referring to the staunchly pro-repository House Republican leadership as a "three-headed monster," Herrera left little doubt that he would use the Yucca decision in his campaign.

Thanks to Yucca Mountain, then, there is the distinct possibility that Nevada's House delegation could switch from even-steven to two-to-one Democratic. That would be one of just six pick-ups the Dems need to gain to take control.

But for the anti-Yucca forces, this local fallout could turn out to be the only silver lining in the mushroom cloud. In a telephone interview, Reid acknowledged that he faces "a real uphill battle" to get the Senate to vote against Yucca Mountain. Assuming that President Bush formally accepts Abraham's recommendation, Guinn would have 60 days to veto the decision. But his veto can be overridden by Congress. The House is all but certain to override, so Reid's "uphill battle" could be the opposition's last hope.

That is, unless Reid can convince - or shame - Bush into rejecting Abraham's recommendation, which now seems to be the senator's goal. Bush won Nevada narrowly, and only, Reid said, because he pledged not to approve the Yucca Mountain project unless "good science" supported it.

"I'm holding him to his word," Reid said.

Needless to say, both the Energy Department and the industry's lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, insist that Abraham's decision is based on "sound science." They continue so to insist, even though the draft report of a study by the incorrigibly objective General Accounting Office concluded that "DOE is not ready to make a site recommendation because it does not yet have all of the technical information needed." Not quite an accusation of sloppy science, but a strong suggestion that the claim of soundness is premature.

Nor did it do the advocates of putting the yuck in Yucca any good when it turned out that the law firm DOE was using on the project - Chicago's Winston & Strawn - was also being paid by the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Hmmm. A powerful industry that knows how to pull strings in D.C. A potential conflict of interest on the part of a private firm assigned to keep everything on the up-and-up. Sound familiar?

No, it isn't really much like Enron, except that in both cases public policy seems designed largely to benefit the corporate giants of the energy sector. If the administration's political and policy foes had the subtlety of mind and method to plant that connection in the public consciousness, opposition to Yucca Mountain might not be confined to Nevada. So far, no such subtlety is visible.

 

Jon Margolis keeps an eye on the nation's capitol from Barton, Vermont.