IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Sen. Pete Domenici: nuclear renaissance man

If there is to be a renaissance in the U.S. nuclear power industry, then Pietro “Pete” Vichy Domenici, the son of Italian immigrants, may be seen as both its Michelango and its Machiavelli. By MSNBC's Mike Stuckey.
Sen. Pete Domenici presides over a September hearing on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Water and Energy.
Sen. Pete Domenici presides over a September hearing on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Water and Energy. Katie Cannon /
/ Source:

On a cool morning last August, the senior U.S. senator from New Mexico hefted a shovel of desert earth and invited 800 onlookers to witness history.

“I have been talking over the last several years about the coming of the nuclear renaissance in commercial nuclear energy in America,” the senator said, helping to dedicate a $1.5 billion uranium enrichment facility in his state's southeast corner, about five miles east of the small town of Eunice. “I am delighted and proud that the renaissance is in New Mexico.”

If the renaissance that the U.S. nuclear power industry predicts for itself is indeed occurring, then Pietro “Pete” Vichy Domenici, the son of Italian immigrants, may be seen as both its Michelango and its Machiavelli. And the New Mexico uranium plant is just one piece of deft political artwork the conservative Republican has brought to a nuclear industry that has showered him with praise — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

Casting himself as Congress’ “chief nuclear apostle,” Domenici has for years painted a glowing picture of nuclear energy’s potential to give Americans “a cleaner, healthier, sustainable and self-sufficient energy future” and even contribute to global peace, as he wrote in his 2004 book on the topic, “A Brighter Tomorrow.” To those ends, he worked tirelessly as the chairman of two powerful Senate committees with direct control of federal spending on nuclear energy and regulation.

For a New Mexico politician, a passion for nuclear power is as natural as sagebrush on the mesa. The state has strong ties to all things nuclear: It is the birthplace of nuclear weapons, home to two national labs that provide 20,000 jobs and bring in billions of dollars a year in federal funds and is host to a Department of Energy nuclear waste site. It also has substantial uranium deposits and depends heavily on nuclear-generated electricity.

But Domenici’s reach on nuclear matters has become ubiquitous. He boasts proudly of how he brought an “adversarial” Nuclear Regulatory Commission to heel. He has helped broker U.S.-Russian deals to convert nuclear bomb materiel into fuel for nuclear plants. He’s the only American to have been honored with the French Nuclear Energy Society's highest award. He has championed the Bush administration’s controversial deal to conduct nuclear business with India and its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a plan to bring nuclear energy to developing nations. Captains of the industry sing his praises and his former aides have graduated to some of the most influential positions in the nuclear industry and the government agencies that work with it and oversee it.

The senator’s signature achievement was winning passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which contained $85 billion in subsidies and tax breaks across all energy sectors, including $13 billion for nuclear power.

Money goes both ways
It’s been a two-way street. Since 1989, Domenici has received $1.2 million in campaign donations from individuals and political action committees in the energy and natural resources sector, well over a tenth of the total $10.8 million he has raised for his Senate campaigns in that time, according to federal election records. Electric utilities, with big stakes in the future of nuclear power and government subsidies for it, kicked in $384,923. The list of Domenici’s campaign donors includes at least three dozen firms on the membership roster of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main lobbying arm.

While Domenici is proud of his nuclear stewardship, as his book attests, his handlers can be prickly when it comes to discussing his relationship with the industry. His staff refused repeated requests from to speak to him for this series, in one case canceling an appointment after a reporter and photographer had flown across the country for an interview.

Now 74 and starting his 35th year in the Senate, the bespectacled, stern-faced Domenici is at a crossroads as he contemplates the nature of his nuclear legacy. With both the House and Senate reverting to Democratic control earlier this month, he lost the chairmanships of the Energy Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Water and Energy.

Given that the Energy Policy Act had strong bipartisan support and that his successor as chairman of the Energy Committee, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Bingaman's counterpart in the House, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., both are staunch supporters of nuclear power, there is no expectation that a legislative U-turn is in the cards.

‘Too soon to tell’
Domenici's work on the energy bill and other nuclear matters could ultimately see him revered as a visionary architect of global energy abundance for the 21st century or reviled for boosting what critics maintain is a dangerous and inefficient way to produce electricity. The prevailing view will not be clear for many years.

"I think his legacy is big, but I’m reminded of (former Chinese Premier) Chou En Lai’s remark about the legacy of the French Revolution being that it's too soon to tell," said Matthew Bunn, a senior researcher in Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom who has worked with Domenici on non-proliferation issues and has testified before the senator's panels on nuclear power matters. "The Energy Policy Act is very big, but how big it will be depends on what actually gets appropriated and how many plants get built.”

Whatever his legacy on nuclear power, the tale of his rise from minor league ballplayer to one of the U.S. Senate’s most powerful and tenured members is the classic local-boy-makes-good story that weaves its way through much of America’s political fabric.

The only son of five children born to Italian immigrants Cherubino and Alda Domenici, the future senator grew up in Albuquerque, working in the family’s wholesale grocery business and attending Catholic schools. After graduating from the University of New Mexico with a degree in education in 1954, Domenici pitched for a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team for a year. Acknowledging that he couldn’t get his curve over the plate, he became a junior high math teacher. By 1958, he had earned a law degree, married Nancy Burk and started a family that would eventually include eight children.

From young mayor to senior senator
Domenici, who had held class presidencies in high school and college, first ran for public office in 1966 at age 34, goaded by friends to put up or shut up when he complained about Albuquerque's city government. He won that contest for a seat on the City Commission and served three years as mayor. A 1970 loss in the New Mexico governor’s race was the only defeat of his political career. In 1972, Domenici was elected to the Senate by a healthy margin and he has easily won re-election five times. Now the longest-serving senator in his state’s history, he is the Senate’s No. 2 Republican in seniority and the chamber's fifth-longest-serving member overall. He’s voted to confirm every sitting member of the Supreme Court. On Sept. 7, work on the Senate floor halted while Domenici was honored for becoming just the eighth member of the body ever to cast 13,000 votes.

Although in recent years he has worked tenaciously to subsidize the nuclear power industry, Domenici first won notoriety as a freshman senator by putting an end to subsidies for U.S. barge operators. In 1978, Capitol Hill watched in amazement as the upstart from New Mexico took on Russell Long, the extremely powerful Democratic senator from Louisiana, to get the Inland Waterways Bill passed.

Domenici’s collegial, bipartisan approach belied a fierce determination to get his way and won admiration from all quarters. His legislative skill served him well during the 2½ years he spent shepherding the energy bill to passage after he took over as chairman of the Energy Committee in 2003. He overcame partisan roadblocks by using a Democratic plan as a starting point and cut the Bush administration's plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to avoid a filibuster.

“He always struck me as a lawmaker who saw both sides of the aisle working for the good of the country,” recalled Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC TV's "Hardball," who worked with Domenici as a Budget Committee staffer in the 1970s. “He was a perfect gentleman, although he could get passionate when he saw something going on he didn’t think was on the level.”

‘Misinformation’ campaign seen
In the mid-1990s, Domenici became convinced that the U.S. retreat from the use of nuclear power after the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl was not on the level. He came to believe, he later wrote, that “irrational fear,” “deliberate misinformation” and “propaganda” from foes of nuclear power and the actions of an overzealous Nuclear Regulatory Commission were keeping the nation from reaping the benefits of a safe electricity source that could also dramatically reduce air pollution.

In a 1997 speech at Harvard, Domenici praised nuclear technology, including reprocessing spent fuel, and vowed to lead the charge for a resurgence of the U.S. nuclear power industry.

He has more than kept his promise, from a 1998 showdown with the head of the NRC in which he threatened to slash the agency’s budget unless it became friendlier to industry, through the passage of the energy bill last year to a current bid to speed nuclear waste shipments to the Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada.

While Yucca Mountain remains mired in technical and political disputes, many anti-nuclear activists today consider the NRC toothless. And the pro-nuclear planks of the Bush administration's energy policy, some of which sprang from Domenici's leadership on the issue, were praised by one utility executive as "beyond our wildest dreams."

Even staunch foes of Domenici’s work on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and other matters, like Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, see the senator as a “true believer in nuclear energy” rather than a political opportunist. But Lyman warns that if Domenici reaches too far, especially with initiatives on reprocessing that are part of GNEP, "It’s only going to backfire and he’s going to end up without the legacy that he craves.”

Not wealthy, but well-entrenched
Domenici’s devotion to legislative causes has kept him from reaping the financial gains realized by congressional contemporaries like former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston and Rep. Billy Tauzin, who have parlayed their Capitol Hill resumes into lucrative lobbying careers.

Domenici’s net worth in 2005, listed as between about $566,000 and $1.52 million on disclosure forms, places him 64th on the list of 100 senators. It pales in comparison with the fortune of the junior senator from New Mexico, Democrat Bingaman, which may approach $38 million.

While Domenici proudly recalls helping lead the 1974 Senate “revolt” to improve the lot of freshmen like himself against the likes of Long and other well-entrenched members, he is now as entrenched and shielded as they come.

Staffers who had scheduled a pair of on-camera interviews for Domenici with abruptly canceled them after determining that “controversial” questions might be asked about the nuclear power industry’s cozy ties with members of Congress and the administration, and its influence on Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force.

“He’d come down on me like a ton of bricks if I let you ask him that,” said Domenici spokeswoman Marnie Funk.

While avoiding such questions, Domenici has done little to avoid potential appearances of conflict in his own close ties with members of the nuclear power industry, including accepting thousands of dollars in campaign funds from them while working on their behalf.

The uranium-enrichment plant that Domenici helped dedicate last summer is a prime example. For years, a consortium called Louisiana Energy Services — made up of some of the biggest players in the nuclear power field, including general partner Urenco — had tried to locate the plant in Louisiana and Tennessee. But local protests in both states blocked the project.

‘Stop putting up with all this guff’
"I said, 'You ought to stop putting up with all this guff and apply to build the facility in New Mexico,' " Domenici said at the ground-breaking ceremony in New Mexico.

Not only did the consortium take Domenici’s advice, quickly finding open arms in Lea County, it got him to insert language into the energy bill requiring the U.S. Department of Energy to take charge of radioactive waste generated by the plant. Domenici made the change after his staff solicited ideas from one of the consortium's partner firms, Exelon, for ways the senator could help grease the skids for the plant, an Exelon executive told the Wall Street Journal.

It was a perk that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., decried as congressional pork “almost in a class by itself,” saying it would would cost the government $500 million. The provision was eventually removed from the bill.

Domenici, as chairman of the committee that holds the purse strings for the Energy Department, also successfully lobbied Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to obtain a security waiver that allowed the project to proceed.

In a press release, Domenici touted the enrichment plant, its 1,000 construction jobs and permanent workforce of as a “powerful new pillar” for southeast New Mexico’s economy.

It did not mention what a powerful pillar the project's partners and contractors have been to the campaign coffers of U.S. politicians, including Domenici.

At the time the consortium sought NRC licensing, its partners included three of the top U.S. nuclear power plant operators — Exelon, Entergy and Duke — and the leading reactor maker, Westinghouse, which has since left venture. It has now engaged the Shaw Group to design and engineer the plant and signed an agreement with French nuclear behemoth Areva to handle waste from the facility.

In the past eight years, political action committees linked to those six firms spent more than $15 million trying to influence the outcome of U.S. elections, an review of records filed with the Federal Elections Commission and compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics showed. Domenici received nearly $38,000, well more than the per capita income in his state and enough to buy a modest home in Eunice.

The PAC expenditures are just a fraction of what Urenco and its consortium partners and contractors spent from 1998-2004 on their lobbying efforts, according to records filed with the U.S. Senate. That figure tops $45 million.

Friends in the right places
More than money has passed between Domenici and his allies in the nuclear industry. As the senator was busy trying to accommodate the project, his top Energy Committee aide was Alex Flint, who had previously been a highly paid, registered lobbyist for nuclear interests, including Exelon, Westinghouse and Areva. Flint has since left Senate employ to become the nuclear industry’s top lobbyist at the Nuclear Energy Institute, in effect now working for all the consortium companies. And the license for the enrichment plant was approved by the NRC, which numbers longtime former Domenici aide Peter B. Lyons among its members. (Also on the NRC is Edward McGaffigan, a longtime former aide to Bingaman, the junior New Mexico senator, and another booster of the project.)

Anti-nuclear organizations have criticized many aspects of the enrichment plant deal and continue to dog it with legal proceedings. One of their most chilling points: Enrichment technology stolen by notorious Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan from consortium general partner Urenco in the 1970s — a key component in making nuclear weapons — is believed to now be in the hands of Iran and North Korea.

Domenici is indicating a willingness to ride into battle once more on behalf of the nuclear industry.

He recently told a local newspaper that he plans to run for re-election in 2008, saying only poor health would keep him out of the race and that he’s currently in good health. But he has acknowledged problems in recent years dealing with extremely painful arthritis in his back and a nerve problem in his shoulder, and he looked as if he almost needed assistance to hobble in and out of a September meeting of his appropriations subcommittee.

“I don’t walk 100 percent fast,” he told the audience after taking his seat.