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Nuclear waste site is election land mine

Unpopular in Nevada, President Bush's decision to put a nuclear waste dump in the state is creating a close race there between the president and Sen. John Kerry, according to recent polls.
John Kerry speaks about Yucca Mountain during campaign stop in Las Vegas
Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry speaks Tuesday to teachers, parents and local leaders at the Ralph Cadwallader Middle School in Las Vegas. The topic: the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.Mike Segar / Reuters
/ Source: news services

Unpopular in Nevada, President Bush's decision to put a nuclear waste dump in the state is creating a close race there between the president and Democrat John Kerry, according to recent polls.

Bush’s problems in Nevada stem from Kerry tapping into voter anger over the president’s designation of Yucca Mountain as the national repository for nuclear waste.

In February 2002, Bush announced that five decades worth of nuclear waste from reactors across the country should be buried under the Nevada desert, declaring that an end to the search for a place to isolate the radioactive debris was necessary to “protect public safety, health and the nation’s security.”

Kerry says the president broke the promise he made in the 2000 race to ensure science and not politics determined his decision whether to ship waste to Yucca Mountain.

“When John Kerry is president, there is going to be no nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Period,” he said at one Nevada campaign stop last Tuesday.

Kerry said he would leave waste at nuclear sites around the country while he instructs the National Academy of Science to study how the world should deal with nuclear waste and storage.

Voting record raised
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt pointed out that Kerry had voted for the 1987 Nuclear Waste Policy Act Amendments, which was tacked onto budget legislation.

Kerry has noted that each time a Yucca vote was held on its own and not attached to other legislation, he has voted against it. His vice presidential running mate John Edwards, a senator from North Carolina, voted in 2002 for the Yucca plan, but campaign aides said he and Kerry are now on the same page.

Kerry said he is concerned about the safety and security of storing the waste 90 miles outside of Las Vegas at a mountain that sits atop the region’s major water supply. Kerry also noted seismic activity has been measured at the mountain and could pose a safety threat.

Kerry said the United States needed a Manhattan Project “to tame the negative consequences of the power of the atom.”

Politics of nuclear waste
While the issue is largely local, it could help determine the presidential race. Nevada is a key battleground state that Bush won in 2000 and without its five electoral votes would not be in the White House.

Members of the Northern Nevada Development Authority tour the Yucca Mountain, Nev., Project in this Jan. 9, 2003 file photo. A federal appeals court on Friday, July 9, 2004 rejected Nevada's arguments against a building a nuclear waste site in the state, but ordered the government to develop a plan to protect the public against radiation releases beyond the proposed 10,000 years. Rick Gunn

Sig Rogich, a prominent aide in the Reagan White House and in the first Bush administration, says Kerry is “pinning his hopes” on the Yucca Mountain controversy because “there’s nothing else” for the Democrat to run on in Nevada.

Adriana Martinez, chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, says Yucca Mountain is a recruiting poster. “We get several e-mails a day from Republicans saying ‘We’d like to volunteer,”’ said Martinez. “We definitely have a good shot.”

A recent appeals court ruling raised questions about whether the waste repository will be built, or at least meet its target of 2010 to begin operation. The court ruled that the federal plan for Yucca Mountain does not go far enough to protect people from potential radiation.

Bush’s energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, says the project is moving ahead. Environmental groups and lawyers for Nevada say the court’s rejection of proposed radiation exposure limits could doom the project.