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The Politics of Yucca Mountain

The debate over Nevada's Yucca Mountain radioactive waste repository rages on, with Kerry and Bush taking opposing sides.
 
 
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One hot-button issue riling voters in Nevada is the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. For decades, the nuclear power industry has grappled with questions of how to dispose spent nuclear fuel, which remains dangerously radioactive for centuries. Industry and government officials figured the best plan was to just put all the hot stuff in one site, and picked a section of the Nevada desert well outside the state's former nuclear testing ground. Not surprisingly, many Nevadans did not take kindly to the idea of being the dumping ground for the nation's nuclear waste, and for years the proposed repository has been one of Nevada's most inflammatory political issues.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush and Cheney said they would not agree to open Yucca Mountain unless the science was sound and the site proven safe. Bush won the state by 3.55 percent of the vote.

Less than two years later, in July 2002, Congress and the White House, overriding the objections of Nevada's elected officials, agreed to start sending waste to Yucca Mountain. But, according to Peggy Maze Johnson of the local environmental justice group Citizen Alert, a host of safety questions remain unresolved. "Two hundred and ninety-three scientific questions about Yucca Mountain are unanswered,' Johnson says. "If you weigh the options, it just doesn't compute.'

The Bush Administration's support for Yucca Mountain has many Nevadans crying foul, and it has provided the Kerry campaign with a wedge issue. In a recent visit to the state, Kerry said he wouldn't support opening the nuclear waste site, detailing his reasons in a May 16 Op-Ed in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Kerry has consistently voted against appropriations for the project and, in fact, voted with 39 other members of the Senate against moving the waste to Nevada.

However, Kerry's selection of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate may be problematic with Nevada voters in the election. Some appear happy with the selection. For example, although Edwards voted twice in 2002 in favor of sending the waste to Yucca Mountain, Nevada's senior representative and Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, said that Edwards has changed his mind.

"John Edwards supports John Kerry on all issues important to the people of Nevada, including Sen. Kerry's pledge to stop nuclear waste coming to Nevada,' Reid said in a released statement.

If Edwards has changed his mind, he hasn't yet told his home state of North Carolina, which wants 2,248 metric tons of irradiated fuel from its nuclear power plants buried at Yucca Mountain. North Carolina newspapers have carried no reports of an Edwards switch on the Yucca issue. The New York Times noted the difference in opinion between Kerry and Edwards on the Nevada site without reporting any change of mind.

One of the centerpieces of Edwards' legislative record is a measure he introduced in November 2002 to provide for procedures for transporting the waste to Nevada (to reduce fears about moving the poisonous stuff on the nation's highways and railroads). Moreover, if Edwards tailored his position to Kerry's for the purposes of the election, he could still revert to his own position on the dump if he became president through succession.

Johnson said that the Yucca Mountain controversy will likely increase voter turnout this fall. Her group is organizing 25 town hall meetings across the state between now and November to discuss Yucca Mountain and other issues.

"If people could have been shown that it was safe, they would have been OK with it,' she said. "But the science is not there to support the myths that the Administration is putting out. People feel that the science has been manipulated to give us Yucca Mountain and they're right, it has been manipulated. I think people in Nevada feel they were deceived.'

Regardless of the final findings of the scientific analysis of Yucca Mountain, the issue remains politicized and polarized in Nevada, with some Nevadans of the belief that Yucca Mountain is a done deal. In fact, in an abrupt about-face of decades of state policy of not parleying a deal with the federal government to take the nuclear waste, this year's Nevada Republican Party platform included a plank that demanded the party "minimize negative impacts from federal control and exploitation of federally-managed lands in Nevada.'

Jason Mark directs the Clean Car Campaign at Global Exchange , an international human rights group. Additional reporting for this story provided by D. Brian Burghart and Dennis Myers.