In November, the road to the White House may go through Nevada. Up U.S. Highway 95 and beyond the town of Indian Springs lays a latent political hotbed: Yucca Mountain. Sitting 100 miles northwest of “Sin City,” Yucca Mountain is the planned location of a federal nuclear waste repository and could prove to be the deciding factor in the Bush-Kerry showdown of 2004.
The Yucca project, passed by Congress and approved by President Bush in 2002, calls for the shipment of over 75,000 tons of nuclear waste from around the United States into Nevada — for long-term storage buried in the slopes of Yucca Mountain. Senator Kerry has told the citizens of Nevada that he would nix the project if elected president, thus providing a clear alternative to the incumbent Bush on an issue of tremendous local importance.
The significance of the Yucca issue to Nevada cannot be minimized. Even in the midst of a political environment so heavily dominated by terrorism and security related concerns, anxieties over nuclear waste threaten to overshadow the prominence of the Iraq dilemma as well as traditional economic concerns in the minds of Nevada voters. Indeed, the Yucca issue itself could very well tilt the state in the Democrats’ favor on Nov. 2, as current polling statistics indicate that about 70 percent of Nevada residents are opposed to the Yucca plan. Strategists from the GOP have wisely recognized that Kerry’s stance on Yucca could cost their party Nevada’s five electoral votes and have therefore been working to portray Senator Kerry as inconsistent on the issue.
The Bush campaign has recently stated that while the Massachusetts Senator has voted against the project in some instances, he has voted for it on six occasions between 1987 and 1997. But to assert that Senator Kerry has flip-flopped on the issue or is unsure of his beliefs would be an oversimplification of the facts. Kerry has voted for the Yucca project only on procedural motions to advance the project but has voted against every direct vote of authorization. For example, Kerry’s vote in 1987, which President Bush most strongly criticizes, canceled studies of alternative storage sites — therefore authorizing a study of Yucca Mountain’s viability as the country’s sole storage facility. The 1987 vote does not appear to be out-of-step with his current advocacy, as it still left the option of leaving the nuclear waste scattered at various sites around the nation — which is exactly for what he voted when the issue came to its final vote in 2002.
Additionally, what seems equally important to consider is that Bush’s record on the Yucca issue is not exactly spotless either. During his year 2000 campaign, candidate Bush promised Nevada that he would not approve Yucca unless it met scientific approval for safety and environmental concerns. But President Bush later approved legislation in 2002 authorizing the Yucca project, despite concerns that a scientific consensus had not been reached. Whether science was really on Bush’s side does not appear to be a concern of importance, as Nevada residents have voiced their unhappiness with the plan.
It is perfectly understandable that the majority of Nevada residents are opposed to using Yucca Mountain as the nation’s nuclear waste repository; having tons of radioactive waste shipped from around the nation into one’s backyard is not exactly the most attractive of options. Concerns over possible radioactive terrorism run high, and accidental leakage into the groundwater of Nevada would bring whole new meaning to the phrase “hitting it big in Vegas.” Historically, the Yucca issue has been a solid indicator of Nevada voting sentiment: Clinton became an outspoken critic of Yucca, and he carried the state in 1992 and 1996, and Bush took a razor thin lead in 2000 only when he mimicked Gore’s opposition to Yucca. It therefore appears that Kerry’s stance on the issue, despite his supposed flip-flop, may be exactly what he needs to race past Bush in the perceived dead-even dispute for Nevada.
If Nevada does indeed elect Kerry, then it may bode very well for his national prospects. After considering the number of electoral votes up for grabs, the winner of Nevada may go on to become the next occupant of the Oval Office. In 2000, Bush won Nevada’s five electoral votes, giving him the push he needed to squeak out a four-vote win in the electoral college. With the 2004 election promising to be just as close a contest, it would be no surprise if Kerry’s promise to Nevada led him straight to the steps of the White House.
Howard Kim is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.