Unlikely Allies in Nuclear Waste War

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Night after night for two years on CNN’s “Crossfire,” Geraldine A. Ferraro and John H. Sununu practically came to blows as they argued the opposite side of almost every issue imaginable.

Now these real-life and television adversaries have found an issue they agree on. Sununu, a conservative Republican and former chief of staff to the first President Bush, persuaded Ferraro, a liberal Democrat and former vice presidential candidate from New York, to join him in lobbying for Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a permanent burial ground for tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear waste.

Not to be outdone, the state of Nevada hired a high-powered odd couple of its own to lobby on the immensely consequential issue, which faces votes in the House and Senate this summer. Two other former presidential chiefs of staff, John Podesta (Bill Clinton) and Kenneth M. Duberstein (Ronald Reagan), are working to sway members of Congress to vote against putting a nuclear depository 90 miles from Las Vegas.


The unconventional pairing of political superstars has inevitably been the source of a few jokes in Washington. “I think Gerry Ferraro has the worst of it,” Podesta said in commenting on their Republican partners.

The strange bedfellows also demonstrate that on the many issues that are not particularly partisan--like Yucca Mountain--both sides find it essential to recruit lobbyists with strong ties to both parties.

Unexpected alliances are sometimes forged in Washington, despite a pervasive us-versus-them mentality in which party allegiances seem to be branded on everyone’s forehead.

In February, President Bush formally approved Yucca as the nation’s repository for nuclear waste. On Monday, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn vetoed the decision. That left the final determination in Congress’ hands.

It requires a simple majority in both houses to override Guinn’s veto and keep the project moving forward. Only if Guinn can win a majority in at least one house can he kill the project. And with Nevada being one state against 49, that’s a tall order.

To marshal a majority of the 100-member Senate, for example, Nevada faces the daunting challenge of persuading 49 senators from other states to vote against the Yucca site. For 15 years, Yucca has been the only site under consideration, which has given the project an air of a fait accompli. So it was clear to Nevada that it had to pursue every vote.


The calculation was different for Yucca’s advocates. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which hired Sununu, believed that the importance of the issue dictated that a consensus of both chambers approve Yucca, and not just a Republican-weighted majority.

Sununu was the one who came up with the idea of approaching his former counterpart on “Crossfire.” Despite their clashing views, Ferraro and Sununu are not nearly as antagonistic as they appeared on the screen.

“That’s show biz,” Sununu said.

As a lobbyist for the Yucca site, Sununu first had to persuade Ferraro that his side was right.

Her initial reaction, Ferraro said, was that if the nuclear industry was for it, she must be against it. But then Sununu asked her to focus on the narrow issue of whether the nation would be better off consolidating all its nuclear waste at one storage site rather than keeping it at 130 nuclear power plants and research facilities across the country.

Ferraro was still not convinced, but the two went to Yucca Mountain together in mid-February and, after she grilled the geologists and other scientists there, Ferraro made up her mind.

“I do not lobby for anything I don’t believe in,” Ferraro said. “I believe this is the safest thing to do with the wastes, especially in light of [potential] terrorist attacks.


“I was spending Valentine’s Day with John Sununu,” she pointed out. “It was hysterical.”

But she admitted that it seemed strange to be on the same side of an issue as Sununu. She could not recall one issue on which they agreed during their years on CNN. “If this were not a very specific issue, I would probably not be working with John Sununu,” Ferraro said. “We’re usually on opposite ends.”

On the other side of the Yucca issue, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has led his state’s fight against the site. He asked Podesta to help him because the two worked together in 2000 to prevent nuclear waste from being stored there temporarily. At that time, Podesta was White House chief of staff, and Reid was impressed with Podesta’s knowledge of the issue and his ability to organize a successful campaign, according to Reid’s spokesman Nathan Naylor.

Duberstein, a longtime lobbyist on gambling issues that are important to Nevada, was brought on board because of his contacts with Republicans.

Podesta, a law professor at Georgetown University, said it has been very easy for him to work with Duberstein despite their different party affiliations. “I’ve known him and respected him for a long time,” Podesta said.

Reid and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who are allies in their effort to defeat the project, are setting the tone for Duberstein and Podesta, Podesta said.

The challenge, he said, is persuading members of Congress who think the decision has already been made to take a fresh look at the risks of Yucca Mountain, particularly the danger of transporting the waste through the country.


It won’t be easy, Podesta said.

“This is a case where there is a lot of money and a lot of special interests on the other side,” he added.

Ferraro and Sununu both said that they too had developed a great deal of respect and even affection for each other through their verbal jousting.

“It was an easy step for us,” Sununu said. “Most old politicians have a kinship. People who have been through the political caldron have respect for others who have been through the political caldron.”