Nuclear Waste Hard To Handle For GOP Candidates

Two early voting states are on opposite ends of the Yucca Mountain divide.

In South Carolina, voters want to ship their nuclear waste far away, maybe to a long-dormant federal site in Nevada called Yucca Mountain. Nevadans, on the other hand, mostly want to see it anywhere but in their state.

And with both states hosting early primaries just days apart, Republican presidential candidates are facing a tricky tightrope walk to avoid losing face in either state.

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which would sit 100 miles outside of Las Vegas, was long thought to be dead, given Sen. Harry Reid's virulent opposition. But with Republicans back in control of the Senate and Reid's pending retirement, the issue has suddenly been revived, and candidates are stuck balancing competing local interests.

Saying you want to open the project—the position taken in recent weeks by Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson—and it's a winner on Feb. 20 in South Carolina, site of the nation's third primary after Iowa and New Hampshire.

But former Nevada Rep. James Bilbray called it "political suicide" in his state, which hosts a wide-open Feb. 23 caucus, the fourth in the nation and first in the West.

"In my political life, I've never seen an issue as emotional in Nevada as Yucca Mountain," said Bilbray, who, as a freshman Democrat, tried to fight the project when Congress first approved it in 1987.

"But I can understand in other states where this can be popular," he said. "I'm not the campaign, I'm not a candidate, but I can see where if you're looking at the big picture and you don't think you can win Nevada, you just try to get some publicity."

The project had been stalled under President Obama and Reid, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reopened its safety study in 2013, which has been favorable towards the site. The House approved $150 million for the site in its fiscal 2016 Energy Department spending bill, and while the Senate did not include similar money, Republicans say they're open to inserting it during a floor debate or in conference with the House.

Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee, two former governors, are staking out more nuanced positions on the Yucca Mountain project. Bush, who's expected to run for the Republican nomination, last week said he's doubtful of Yucca's future, although he acknowledged the need for a long-term solution to the country's waste storage problem.

"I think we need to move to a system where the communities and states want it," Bush told reporters in Reno. "It's a system where instead of having it forced down the throats of people, that there is a consensus inside the communities and states that they want it and they proactively go for it.

And in a statement to National Journal, Huckabee said that "the citizens of Nevada—not federal bureaucrats—should determine the future of Yucca Mountain."

"As a former governor, I believe the federal government should not force Nevada to accept nuclear waste against their will, but work with Nevada officials to find a mutually agreeable solution," Huckabee said.

That stance, which mirrors what major GOP candidates like Mitt Romney have said in the past, is a bit of a hedge, said University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor David Damore.

"That's language you hear from Republicans trying to find a middle ground between what the nuclear industry wants and what you say when you're in Nevada," said Damore.

Polls show that voters largely don't want the repository to open, and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval has pushed funds through the state legislature to fight the project. Reid lashed out at Bush and Rubio, saying in an email that he dared "any Republican to step foot in Nevada and declare their support for" Yucca Mountain.

"Let this be a warning to Republican presidential candidates as they make their way to Nevada: Google exists and you cannot hide from your past positions on Yucca Mountain," he said in a statement from the Nevada Democratic Party.

But nationally, Republicans and the nuclear industry want to see Yucca opened, since the government already has poured millions into the site and it's seen as the best federal location (there also is movement for smaller, private repositories in other states). Bush is even a member of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a pro-Yucca group backed by the Nuclear Energy Institute, although he splits with it on this issue (the tie was first reported by Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston).

And in South Carolina, Yucca represents an opportunity to clear out its crowded nuclear waste sites; along with Washington, it sued the NRC to reopen its review of the Nevada project, a decision it won in 2013. Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham, himself an expected 2016 candidate, applauded the decision and said they were determined to ensure South Carolina did not become a permanent home to nuclear waste.

"If we could ship everything away, we'd do it for sure. We've even talked about putting it on rockets and sending it into space," said David Woodward, a political science professor at Clemson who has advised Republican campaigns. "Obviously its best to say that you're for Yucca Mountain here."

And that's why the state has become a welcome site for some pro-Yucca statements. Rubio said this month that with the money spent on Yucca, it should move forward. Cruz told the Greenville News that Yucca should have opened years ago, blaming the delay on Reid's "brand of nasty, partisan politics," although he added that if Nevadans opposed, he would be open to moving the site and recouping the federal funds spent there.

And Ben Carson said the Yucca site was "logical" given its sparse population, saying, "if the science is correct, we do have to come up with a mechanism for transporting the nuclear waste in a safe manner, and I think the people of Nevada would need to be compensated for that as well."

But that again leaves them on shaky ground in the valuable Nevada race. Rubio is in an especially awkward spot -- lieutenant governor Mark Hutchison also opposes the project, but was recently named chair of Rubio's Nevada campaign. Hutchison told the Las Vegas Review Journal that he wouldn't leave the campaign over the issue, but would "use my own personal influence and my relationship with him to make Nevada's case against Yucca Mountain."

A spokesman for Rand Paul said the senator was not commenting on Yucca, while a spokesman for Carly Fiorina did not return a request. Democrats have been generally opposed to the project; Hillary Clinton in the 2008 campaign said she opposed it.

Another variable complicating the candidates' stance was Nevada's current use of a caucus. Although it's an early voting state, the format of the caucus has blunted turnout and in the past made Romney, who had the support of the state's Mormon voters, and Ron Paul, backed by libertarians, the dominant figures there.

State leaders are exploring a move to a primary, which state analysts say could make the state more appealing to national candidates. That, Bilbray said, could give candidates like Bush a leg up when they avoid full-throated support for Yucca.

"If I don't think I'm winning a caucus, I move on and say something that's going to get me publicity," Bilbray said. "But I don't see how a candidate can win on this. Anyone, even you or me, could win against a candidate who supports Yucca."