This article appears in The American Spectator's March 2006 issue. To subscribe, please click here.
In recent years Nevada politicos like Governor Kenny Guinn, Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, and Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign, along with the major newspapers, have proclaimed the Silver State's united opposition to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository about an hour and a half out of Las Vegas. Every self-respecting Nevadan, it seems, naturally must be against Yucca.
Well, maybe not everyone. It seems that Reid and Co. overlooked a free thinker named Crystal Wosik.
Miss Wosik is better known as Miss Nevada. She was her state's proud representative to January's Miss America pageant, which took place, coincidentally, in Las Vegas. In a bid to breathe some life into the dying Miss America spectacle, pageant organizers moved the event out of Atlantic City for the first time in its 85-year history. Searching for better ratings, they traded the rundown squalor of a Jersey shore boardwalk for the glitz and glitter of the Vegas strip.
According to the Reno Gazette Journal, Miss Wosik was asked during the interview session (which did not air on television) her opinion of the controversial plan to store the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Bucking the trend established by just about every major elected official in the state, Miss Nevada replied that the waste must go somewhere, and Yucca Mountain appeared to be the best place in the country for it. It was an eminently reasonable, even courageous, position to take.
Until the follow-up.
The pageant Savonarolas pounced. They asked what if something terrible happened, some sort of catastrophe where people died.
Well, she reportedly replied, sometimes you "just have to take one for the team."
Take one for the team indeed. Such selflessness and generosity of spirit helped ensure Crystal would not be not crowned Miss America.
So she went down in flames. But in so doing, Miss Wosik provided a valuable service, suggesting the fissures that might exist in the state's supposedly unified resistance to filling Yucca Mountain with nearly 80,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel.
I had Crystal's Yucca Mountain apostasy in mind during a trip to Las Vegas conducted just two weeks after the Miss America pageant. Having long known what the state's political establishment had to say about the matter, I was curious what the average Las Vegan -- if there is such a thing -- thought about Yucca. If my limited sampling is any indication, the answer is not much at all.
"Yucca Mountain?" asked a blackjack dealer at the Bellagio in response to my inquiry. "That's in Idaho, right?" I told him it was not far from Las Vegas. He said he had only been in Sin City for a year.
Others I asked could identify the Yucca Mountain controversy, but nobody seemed too upset over the possibility the repository might get built. "The politicians are making hay over it," a cocktail waitress at the low-rent Barbary Coast noted. I had queried her as she brought me an early morning drink. "But I don't think it's much of a problem. The scientists will bury that stuff pretty deep." Her candor earned a big tip.
My admittedly unscientific survey netted not one person who could be described as being exercised over Yucca.
Perhaps that is not surprising. For years Nevada -- and Las Vegas in particular -- played up its role as ground zero of the nation's nuclear weapons efforts. Before the moratorium on nuclear testing was instituted in 1992, more than 1,000 nuclear detonations were conducted there. Most took place at the government's test site near Las Vegas. About 100 of these were atmospheric tests; the rest were detonated underground, leaving an eerie set of pockmarks along the desert floor.
During the 1950s, the Nevada Test Site averaged an aboveground explosion every five weeks. They were bona fide tourist attractions. Casinos ferried high rollers out in early morning limousine rides to watch the mushroom clouds tower over the landscape. So important was the atom bomb to defining Las Vegas that in 1958 Clark County incorporated a mushroom cloud into its seal. According to a 2005 PBS feature on Las Vegas, the Sands Hotel and Casino even held an annual Miss Atomic Beauty contest.
Miss Atomic Beauty! Now that's a pageant Crystal Wosik should win hands down.