01/25/2002 12:00AM

Stockpiles of nuclear waste? 'Thank-you, no' says Vegas

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Nevadans believe Washington is picking on them, and it's easy to see why.

The first campaign was waged by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to stop college sports betting in Nevada. He argues that a ban would serve as an obstacle to illegal sports betting around the country. Sure.

Now comes the second campaign: Last week U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recommended to President Bush that Yucca Mountain become the world's first repository for high-level nuclear waste. That would transfer 77,000 tons of nuclear waste to a site 100 miles from Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the U.S.

If anything could begin to erode the phenomenal growth of Las Vegas, it might just be nuclear waste. Las Vegas and Orlando are the top two U.S. cities for number of hotel rooms because they are America's top tourist destinations. So imagine the uproar if the outskirts of Orlando near Disney World were chosen for this repository.

Fortunately Nevadans are not taking this lying down.

This will be a hard fight to win, though. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hired two key Washington lobbyists on behalf of the nuclear industry, John Sununu, former chief of staff to the first President Bush, and Geraldine Ferraro, former Democratic Party vice presidential candidate.

Sununu was in town recently and questioned the patriotism of opponents of Yucca Mountain. "If Nevada is not willing to do its part in what is part of a national plan for homeland security . . . then maybe Americans ought to vacation somewhere else."

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted back at Sununu: "To say that Nevada hasn't given to this country is just wrong." The state has several military installations, including Nellis Air Force Base. Nevada was also a test site for nuclear weapons in the 1950's and 1960's. Yucca Mountain is a ridge of volcanic rock situated on the southwest edge of the test site.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman met in Washington with the mayors of 35 other cities last Thursday. He told them the stockpiles of nuclear waste would be transported through their cities on the way to Nevada. A minor traffic accident could start a nuclear disaster. Transporting the nuclear waste would give terrorists more opportunities to act.

Then Mayor Goodman, in his own inimitable style, called Abraham "that piece of garbage."

Bear in mind that Abraham's announcement has been 20 years in the making. At the same time the U.S. government was conducting feasibility tests at Yucca Mountain, it was already building the actual repository.

Rep. Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.) told The Las Vegas Review-Journal that "the transportation of nuclear waste through 43 states and the construction of a single identifiable repository outside the fastest growing metropolitan region in the country are gross and needless risks to our national security."

The route for transporting the nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain is also dangerous. Tractor-trailers must travel a dangerous strip of U.S. Highway 95, cross the Hoover Dam that retains the main water supply of drinking water for Arizona, Las Vegas, and Southern California, then drive on downtown Las Vegas highways.

This fight will take years to win, but Nevadans will wage the Yucca Mountain defense as if they were defending the Alamo.

Richard Eng is turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap-Up Show.