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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yucca Swings

Air Date: Week of

Senator John Kerry is betting that Nevada's opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site will help him win that battleground state. Jeff Young reports.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the presidential race, you know the outcome is likely to depend upon a few key swing states where votes are expected to be close and the candidates are running neck and neck.

In one of those states there’s an environmental issue that’s at center stage. That’s Nevada and the issue is Yucca Mountain — the highly controversial project intended to hold the country’s atomic waste for thousands of years. President Bush signed the bill approving the project. But Nevada officials are fighting it in court and most Nevadans strongly oppose bringing the country’s nuclear waste to their state. Senator Kerry tells Nevada voters if elected he would stop Yucca Mountain.

From Las Vegas, Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report

YOUNG: This is Las Vegas, so let’s go ahead and get the cliché gambling reference out of the way, okay? Who’s the smart money bet in the race for Nevada’s five electoral votes?

JELEN: It’s a horse race. I wouldn’t bet a dime either way.

YOUNG: That’s Ted Jelen, political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Like most pollsters, Jelen sees Nevada as a toss up, which is not what he expected. He thought President Bush would be winning Nevada by an eight to ten point spread. Except for one thing.

JELEN: The main thing, I think, is the Yucca Mountain issue. Yucca Mountain gives the Democrats a very strong issue, you know, on which they can set the agenda.

YOUNG: On the campaign trail, John Kerry bashes President Bush. In Nevada, he also bashes Yucca Mountain, as in this interview with Las Vegas public radio station KNPR.

KERRY: I happen to be against Yucca Mountain and I’m against that storage mechanism. There are other ways of storing and other securing means without dumping them on unwilling partners.

View of the tunnel’s entrance at Yucca Mountain. (Photo courtesy of www.yuccamountain.org)

YOUNG: Kerry mentions the safety concerns raised by citizen groups as they fight the Yucca project in court: that nuclear waste containers could corrode if water seeps into Yucca mountain’s tunnels; that the area is prone to earthquakes; and that moving radioactive waste to the site invites accidents or attacks.

Kerry calls, instead, for an ambitious scientific effort to find new ways to deal with the waste.

KERRY: What we really have to do is begin a kind of Manhattan Project on the disposal of nuclear waste. We have barely applied ourselves scientifically to the task. Instead of being so dependent on storage, we ought to be more dependent on destruction.

Aerial view of the crest of Yucca Mountain. (Photo courtesy of Department of Energy)

YOUNG: Jelen says the Yucca issue alone keeps Kerry competitive in Nevada.

JELEN: It’s hard to think of anyone who is for Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Bush administration has a lot to answer for to the citizens of Nevada, and has not done so effectively.

YOUNG: Four years ago, candidate Bush told Nevadans he would let science guide his decisions on Yucca mountain. Here’s how Bush explained it at a campaign rally this summer in Las Vegas.

BUSH: When I campaigned here in this state I said I would make a decision based upon science, not politics. I said I would listen to the scientists, those involved with determining whether or not this project could move forward in a safe manner, and that’s exactly what I did. I listened to the people who know the facts and know the science and made a decision.

YOUNG: That got cheers from a carefully screened, partisan crowd, but not from Yucca’s opponents.

JOHNSON: Absolutely he lied to us, and I say that every chance I get.

YOUNG: Peggy Maze Johnson directs the group Citizen Alert, which is approaching its 30th year of activism on nuclear waste issues. Johnson says Bush did not fulfill his pledge when Congress sent him the bill approving the Yucca site.

JOHNSON: When he signed it there were over 293 unanswered scientific questions. Now, from where I’m sitting, that is not sound science.

[PHONE RINGS. Man answers phone, “Victory 2004, Kerry for president”]

YOUNG: At the Democratic headquarters, campaign director Sean Smith says Yucca mountain has become a touchstone for other concerns about President Bush.

SMITH: It’s as much about this issue that George Bush cannot be trusted as it is about Yucca Mountain. And we’ve seen the anger about that decision for a long time.

YOUNG: Across town at the Republican headquarters, party director Chris Carr is in a ticklish spot. He supports Bush, but opposes Yucca Mountain.

CARR: We here in Nevada, we don’t think that it was sound science. However, I think it’s a big stretch – I think it’s absurd that they say that he himself was not honest about it. The president obviously depended on his advisors at the Department of Energy and his advisors at Department of Energy if they went and gave him the information that it was sound science, then the president trusted his advisors.

YOUNG: So, which version of this do voters here buy? Do they feel misled by Bush? Do they believe Kerry when he says he’d stop Yucca Mountain? For some answers, I went to watch some high school football.


YOUNG: It’s Friday night and the Chaparral Cowboys host the Las Vegas Wildcats. This is no scientific sample, but a few random conversations with folks here reflect pretty closely what polls show. Recent polling says about a third of Nevadans are like Isa Rivers.

RIVERS: The reason that I’m voting for Kerry is because of that issue. And if there’s an accident, heaven forbid, you know there’s going to be spilling and fallout, and there’s going to be all kinds of problems. I can just see so many things happening because of it. I’m just against it. I’m opposed, and I’ll vote against it until I die.

YOUNG: The poll shows 67 percent of Nevadans oppose Yucca Mountain. But about half say it will make no difference in how they vote in the presidential race. Why is that? Well, listen to what Bruce Scott thinks of Kerry’s pledge.

SCOTT: It’s a political football. Whatever they feel that you want to hear they’re gonna say. I don’t believe he’s gonna stop it. I don’t believe he’s got the power to stop it. It hasn’t been stopped yet. They’re still digging the hole, the hole is still there--might as well fill it in and use it.


YOUNG: Maybe it was just because the home team was getting shut out, but there was an air of defeatism about the Yucca project. Many say they think Yucca cannot be stopped. That’s the message the Yucca project’s proponents want Nevadans to hear. Robert List was the state’s Republican governor in the early ‘80s. Now he’s a consultant for the nuclear industry on Yucca Mountain.

LIST: If you ask the average Nevadan, “do you want the project here if you had a choice,” the majority certainly would say “no, we don’t want it here.” At the same time they say, “but we think its going to happen and we believe we ought to begin to negotiate for benefits.”

YOUNG: List says a project estimated at 60 billion dollars will bring jobs and tax revenue to the state. Activists fighting Yucca say Kerry’s campaign here has breathed new life into the opposition. But a decisive vote against Kerry could be viewed as a sort of referendum for it, as President Bill Clinton warned Nevada Democrats at a fundraising event in June.

CLINTON: I’m telling you, you need to go out and tell the people of Nevada, if you vote one more time for this administration they will think you are voting to greenlight this.

YOUNG: The nuclear power industry has a lot riding on this vote. The industry’s lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, has spent tens of millions in lobbying and campaign contributions to win Congressional support for Yucca. NEI Vice President Angie Howard is disappointed with Kerry’s stance.

HOWARD: We’re concerned that Senator Kerry has taken that position. There has been over 20 years of very solid science gone into the development of Yucca Mountain as a possible candidate site for the repository. And Yucca Mountain’s important for continuation of the development of nuclear energy as we go forward for our nation’s electricity supply.

YOUNG: Back at his campus office, Professor Ted Jelen sees a great irony in all of this. The one state where an environmental issue appears to be making a real difference in the presidential race is a state that largely does not much care about environmental issues.

JELEN: Well, the state bird is the construction crane. (LAUGHS) This is not a place where – the environment in Nevada is to be conquered, not protected.

YOUNG: Jelen says opposition to Yucca Mountain is generally not viewed as a fight for the environment, but as one against big government.

JELEN: This was something imposed from outside the state, and the local Democrats are doing very well. They’re not proposing it so much as an environmental issue as a state’s rights issue. Nevadans will decide the use to which land is put, not bureaucrats in Washington. So that anti-government sentiment that you get in this part of the world can cut both ways.

YOUNG: We’ll see how deeply it cuts come November 2nd. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Las Vegas.



Yucca Mountain Project

Eureka County, Nevada Nuclear Waste Page

Citizen Alert


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