Dump Bush?

John Kerry opposes the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. Will that help him in Nevada?

| Wed Jul. 14, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

The longstanding - and understandable - "not in my backyard" attitude of citizens toward nuclear waste has galvanized anti-Bush forces in Nevada. Now it’s up to John Kerry to capitalize on opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository site and score a victory in a swing state that chose Bush over Gore by only 3.5 percent.

The Democratic Party took a major step to help Kerry this weekend, approving a national platform plank that opposes turning the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas into a repository for waste from around the country. The anti-Yucca plank will be included in the convention platform later this month, echoing Kerry’s longstanding opposition to the site. As Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) told the Associated Press:

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"It sends a very strong message that the Democratic Party is solidly behind the state of Nevada in its fight against Yucca Mountain. It draws a line in the sand and a distinction between the two parties' positions when it comes to the safety of Nevada families…It will take a Democratic president to stop this process dead in its tracks, and John Kerry has already promised to do that."

The Yucca Mountain plan, approved by both houses of Congress and President Bush in 2002, was the result of a search started in 1982 to find a viable resting place for highly radioactive nuclear waste. The Yucca site would serve as a burial ground for more than 77,000 tons of waste, entombed in concrete containers deep inside the mountain.

Nevada lawmakers have consistently opposed such a plan, citing the danger of leakage and long-term environmental damage. While 31 states have nuclear power plants, Nevada does not, and the state has sued to prevent Yucca Mountain from becoming a repository. In a decision announced Friday, a panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the state’s challenge to the project. But the judges did rule that the Department of Energy must address the site’s long-term environmental impact by instituting stricter radiation standards, which will likely slow the project’s progress.

As the Las Vegas Sun reports, the vast majority of Nevadans disapprove of the Yucca site. Polls consistently find about 70 percent opposed to the project, though poll data gives no clear answer on whether citizens will cast their presidential votes with Yucca in mind.

But the more Yucca Mountain stays in the news, the more opportunity Democrats have to remind voters that Bush and his party supported the repository. Mascots like "Yucca Man" (in his white haz-mat suit) have protested Republican events. And while Bush campaigned in the Republican stronghold of Reno last month, protesters implied he was avoiding the anti-Yucca sentiment in the southern part of the state. As John Smith of the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted in a June 30 column, even staunch Bush loyalists like Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) see Yucca as a problem for the president:

"I think Yucca Mountain is a terrible, terribly heavy political weight to bear in this state. I think there's a lot of people who would like to see it a bigger issue. And there's a lot of us who think that it's part of the politics we deal with every day and that the Nevada voters will be able to judge who they want to lead this nation accordingly."

In fairness, while Republicans overwhelmingly supported the Yucca plan when it passed in 2002, so did 15 Senate Democrats and 102 House members. That number included newly minted vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, who has since said he will defer to Kerry on the issue. As Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius notes:

"That points up something unique about this issue: To Nevada, it's a litmus test. To the rest of the country, it's a funny name. Otherwise, why would Kerry have risked alienating vote-rich Nevada (not) by picking a guy who was wrong on The Big Issue?

"In other states, Yucca Mountain is seen as a solution to a problem. Nuclear waste piles up in North Carolina, and Edwards wants to get rid of it so he can tell his constituents he's done something."

But Edwards has convinced Nevada Democrats like Harry Reid that he’s on board with Kerry’s position. And Kerry has been one of the Senate’s most consistent voices against Yucca Mountain, sharing the view of Nevada’s entire congressional delegation and the state’s Republican governor, Kenny Guinn – before Bush backed the plan over their objections.

While the aforementioned court ruling generally sided with the administration, its repudiation of the inadequate radiation standards has brought criticism for Bush – as his 2000 campaign promised that "science, not politics" would drive his Yucca Mountain policy. In the words of the Review-Journal’s Sebelius:

"We can, though, single out Bush for special Yucca bashing, because he promised to wait until sound science was finished before deciding to designate Yucca Mountain as the nation's nuclear dump or not. And then, before 'sound science' was finished, Bush acted anyway. That's a broken promise, and it's something for which the Bush campaign will have to answer."

If voters don’t like that answer, Nevada – which has backed the winner in the last six presidential elections - could fall into Kerry’s column.

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