Nevada's Clout in the Primaries Puts the Spotlight on Nuclear Politics


Meet Yucca Mountain Johnny: nice enough guy, cave explorer and not welcome in the state of Nevada. He's the helmeted cartoon character invented by the U.S. Department of Energy to interest kids in its $58 billion vision for Nevada, which could become by 2017 the first-ever national resting place for 77,000 tons of waste left by nuclear reactors across America. The debris would be shipped cross-country, mainly by rail, and entombed in the depths of a seven-mile desert ridge an hour and a half's drive from Las Vegas.

But any spent fuel rods will go in there over the dead bodies of powerful Silver State politicians from both parties. For years here, careers have risen on promises to stick a wrench in the Yucca plan. Even the gaffes have. A notorious remark by 1980s Sen. Chic Hecht, R-Nev., found him vowing to halt "nuclear suppositories" in Nevada, when he meant "depositories." That's the preferred term by defenders who emphasize that Yucca wouldn't be a "dump," as critics have called it, but a 1,000-foot-deep zone to deposit titanium-shielded casks buried under dry volcanic rock. But many Nevadans fear that radiation could leak in an accident, either here in the desert or on the way.

"Democrat candidates generally have to come in and say they oppose Yucca," says University of Nevada political science professor Eric Herzik, "or will be beat up in the caucuses by the very strong anti-Yucca base among Democrats in the state."

And on the Republican side, only former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney has hinted that he might defer to Nevadans on Yucca. But among the three Democratic front runners of 2008, no friend of Yucca Mountain Johnny's is to be found -- even if two of the candidates support nuclear power and, in Obama's case, has major ties to Big Atom.

If Clinton, Edwards and Obama are paying more attention than usual to the concerns of Nevada, which barely mattered in 2000, it's because the state's concerns are being magnified by the special place it now occupies on the Democratic Party's 2008 primary calendar. It used to be that about 14 states voted before Nevada in the primaries. This time, its Jan. 19 caucus -- right after Iowa's -- makes it the No. 2 stop on the road to nomination.

That means candidates will be trying to impress the Las Vegas Strip's powerful labor union of restaurant, casino and hotel workers, the 60,000-strong Culinary Union Local 226 whose leader, D. Taylor, won congratulatory letters from Obama and Hillary after his employees voted this month for a strike against the gaming giant MGM Mirage. The two candidates are hoping Taylor's 226 doesn't follow the example of the state's unions of carpenters, steelworkers and miners by choosing Edwards instead of them.

To avoid losing her edge in Nevada -- where she's led a recent poll with 33 percent support over Obama's 19 and Edwards's 15 -- Hillary Clinton took steps earlier this year to shore up her record of opposition to Yucca. Competitors Barack Obama and John Edwards followed suit.

Hillary Clinton, of the three, "has most obviously played the Yucca politics card," says Herzig. She has promised that, if elected, she would ensure that Yucca, which the White House supports, "would not go forward."

This July, Clinton and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called for Senate hearings on the science of Yucca. (A Senate aide told AlterNet that the hearings are expected some time this fall.) Earlier, on June 1, her campaign revealed it had hired the state's leading anti-Yucca activist: Peggy Maze Johnson, who, as the leader of the environmentalist group Citizens Alert, protested by driving the highways towing a mock nuclear waste trailer.

Any Democrat who wanted to support Yucca would have to deal with Harry Reid, the party's Senate Majority Leader and the responsible party for the early caucus date. He was calling Bush a liar over Yucca long before he opposed him on Iraq. "I have spent 20 years fighting the absurd idea that massive quantities of deadly nuclear waste can be transported across thousands of miles," Reid has said. And Bush, he told the New Yorker, "started out on a real bad foot with me because of Yucca Mountain."

The president had run promising to consider "sound science" before supporting Yucca, but now signed off on the project rather than wait. In 2002, Reid told Bush in an Oval Office meeting: "You sold out on this."

Six years later, the next step to establishing Yucca just may play a role in the 2008 general election. It's a license application that will fall smack in the middle of the presidential race next summer. The U.S. government will consider a 10,000-page application and decide whether to grant permission to go ahead.

Allen Benson, a Department of Energy spokesman, suggests that the risk of moving the "robust casks" of nuclear debris, most of which will be done by rail, has been overrated. "Ninety percent of the whole thing" is protective material, he says. And as for moving by truck: He says that after 5,000 shipments total, there have been two incidents, a wrong turn and a mild rear-end collision.

On the other hand, opponents of Yucca Mountain allege that the ridge, situated in an area with an earthquake record, could seep waste into the water table. Expect that to come up during the Clinton hearings, along with concerns over whether DOE scientists are putting politics ahead of honesty. In 2005, there was uproar after it was revealed that water scientists had sent emails casually discussing the need to "make up more stuff." Criminal charges, for falsifying data, were considered by federal prosecutors, but never surfaced. Barack Obama, like Clinton, has condemned the plan, despite Illinois's pressing need to remove nuclear waste that has been sitting in Illinois, which has 11 operating reactors, the most of any state.

In 1982, when it became U.S. policy to establish a national waste dump like Yucca Mountain, it was expected that the state's new reactors would soon have a place to go. It hasn't happened. And so, for example, in the southern Illinois town of Clinton, nuclear waste from the local reactor, co-run by the firm Exelon, has been sitting for years in an underwater fuel pool. Some are out of room, so the company keeps other waste in above-ground dry casks.

That company is also among the top sources of funds for the Obama campaign. "Sen. Obama doesn't need new hearings to know that he does not support using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site," the Obama campaign's Jen Psaki told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after Clinton demanded hearings.

But the third-largest donor to Obama’s presidential run -- Exelon -- has other ideas. According to the campaign cash site, the company (which also owns ComEd, the state’s biggest electrical utility) has contributed at least $189,350 to date. But Obama seems above showing any restraint toward Exelon as a result. Harper's journalist Ken Silverstein, after Exelon concealed evidence that its plant had leaked deadly tritium into nearby water, Obama called in 2006 for a law forcing nuclear companies to "inform state and local officials if there is an accidental or unintentional leak of a radioactive substance." But this Nuclear Release Notice Act has gone nowhere since the Democrats took over.

Hillary Clinton also has ties to the nuclear industry. She's taken $83,250 from NRG Energy, a New Jersey firm that hopes to build two reactors in South Texas -- America's first new nuke plants in over 30 years.

At August's YouTube debates, where the candidates were asked what they thought of that industry, Obama came out strongest for it. "I actually think that we should explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix," he said. Clinton equivocated, claiming to be "agnostic about nuclear power," though she has actually expressed belief in it by voting for the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2007. That's a creation of Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., (who have written an op-ed challenging their colleagues to "have the courage to promote safe climate-friendly nuclear energy.)

"Until we figure out what we're gonna do with the waste and the cost, it's very hard to see nuclear as a part of our future," she said, "but that's where technology comes in." So far, however, researchers haven't found a silver bullet for nuclear waste. Even the reuse method used by France -- banned here under the Carter administration for fear waste could be used by terrorists -- leaves behind deadly byproducts. (Some scientists have envisioned "transmutation," a Starship Enterprise level of technology in which deadly matter could be smashed into something stable.)

It was John Edwards alone -- the candidate who recently won the backing of a group of Nevada environmentalists led by Nevada Conservation League director Scot Rutledge -- who told the YouTube audience that he did "not favor nuclear power." "To really oppose Yucca Mountain," said a pleased Rutledge, "that means you have to have a position against nuclear energy."

Environmentalists have applauded Edwards's trajectory into green thinking after the early part of his Senate career found him voting for Yucca Mountain as part of what he then called "new thinking." But in 2004, he aligned with running mate John Kerry, a foe of the project.

The candidate who has it bad is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was actually head of Bill Clinton's DOE, during which he signed off on a report naming Yucca a good place to build the project, inked a $3.1 billion deal to let the Bechtel Corp. build it, and now, as a candidate, says he opposes it. Others, however, have opposed it for years: Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

The early excitement that Nevada's caucus calendar shift entailed has been somewhat dampened over the months as California and other states have followed it backwards on the primary schedule. But it's still the No. 2 stop. That and the hearings promise more attention for the mountain, if not for the cartoon character of Yucca Mountain Johnny himself, whose online lease on life was yanked earlier this year after Nevada politicians from both parties -- sensitive to all risk of being seen as "soft on Yucca" -- called for the termination of his funds.

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