Muckraker: Grist on Politics

The Bush administration is pushing full speed ahead with plans to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain — and that could affect the presidential race in the battleground state of Nevada, where John McCain and Barack Obama are in a dead heat.

Last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed to review the federal government’s license application for the site, where it wants to store spent fuel from nuclear plants around the U.S. as well as military nuclear waste. The review is expected to take about four years, and if all goes as planned (a very big if), the Bush administration says Yucca Mountain could open in 2020.

Yesterday, the U.S. EPA issued new radiation standards for Yucca, responding to a 2004 federal court ruling that found its initial regulations inadequate. The new regs are the same as the previous ones in the standards they set for the first 10,000 years after waste disposal: the average human living within 18 kilometers of the facility should be exposed to no more than 15 millirem of radiation per year, about what one would get from an X-ray. What’s different is that the new regs tighten the standards for years 10,000 to 1 million, from 350 millirems to 100. Yep, the court required the agency to plan a million years into the future.

Most Nevadans probably aren’t concerned about the particulars of radiation standards set for tens of thousands of years from now — they are just generally opposed to the idea of 77,700 tons of waste being shipped to a site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The state has petitioned the NRC to reject the federal government’s license application. In a recent poll, 58 percent of Nevadans surveyed said they opposed the storing of nuclear waste at Yucca.

Anti-Yucca sentiment, brought front of mind by the Bush administration’s recent moves to push the project forward, would seem to benefit Obama; he’s opposed to using Yucca as a waste site while McCain is a longtime supporter of the idea. “I believe we have to have a waste repository, and I believe Yucca Mountain is a place that can be made safe,” McCain said in an interview in May 2007. McCain is also more pro-nuke than Obama, proposing to build 45 new nuclear reactors in the U.S. by 2030, and 55 more after that. Obama has run ads in Nevada criticizing McCain for supporting Yucca.

How much will Yucca Mountain actually matter at the ballot box? A poll conducted in August found 60 percent of Nevadans saying the Yucca issue would have some influence on their vote, including 23 percent who said it would sway their vote; 38 percent said it would not affect their vote. Among independents, 69 percent said the issue would influence their vote at least to some extent. In a closely fought swing state, those are numbers to be noted, but for now they haven’t pushed Obama ahead of McCain.

Nevada Sens. Harry Reid (D) and John Ensign (R) yesterday condemned the EPA’s new radiation standards and said they would continue to push for a nuclear-waste solution that doesn’t involve Yucca. Said Reid, “Instead of working to protect the health and safety of Nevadans, EPA and [the Department of Energy] are casting science aside in an attempt to get the nuclear waste dump approved.”

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, also weighed in on the development, and linked it to presidential politics: “Today’s new rules make clear that the Department of Energy jumped prematurely with an answer before the question had been finished,” he said. “They need to withdraw the application, finish their homework assignment, and resubmit it. The rules on Yucca Mountain are especially critical given that some in Congress, including Sen. McCain, are calling for an explosion in nuclear construction that would generate the need for a new Yucca Mountain every 17 to 24 years.”