06/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Yucca Casts Short Shadow On Nevada Presidential Politics

When presidential candidates stump in Nevada, the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain takes center stage. White House hopefuls and the national media zero in on the potential storage site as the state's most pivotal issue. For Nevadans, however, Yucca is not the top political priority.

"Nevada cares so deeply that Yucca Mountain may decide whether President Bush or Sen. John F. Kerry wins the state's five electoral votes on Tuesday -- and with them, perhaps the presidency," wrote Washington Post reporter Evelyn Nieves in 2004, citing Bush's approval of the site during his first term in office as an obstacle to winning a second.

Yet days after the article appeared, voters in Nevada helped push President George W. Bush one electoral vote past the 270 he needed to remain in the Oval Office.

"The media overstate Yucca," said Eric Britton Herzik, the political science chair at the University of Nevada in Reno. "I've argued that this has been going on since Yucca has been in play, particularly in 2004."

Yucca has been in play for more than two decades now, ever since it made the U.S. Department of Energy's shortlist of possible nuclear waste facilities in 1984. The proposed storage site, just 90 miles from the state's population center in Las Vegas, has become a defining issue for state politicians.

"I don't think that Yucca Mountain, at the presidential level, is the determining factor for people," said Steve Fernlund, president of the Red Rock Democrats, a party organization in the suburbs outside Las Vegas. "I'm guessing the sense is our congressional delegation is really our backstop, if you will, with Yucca Mountain."

Democratic Senator and House Majority Leader Harry Reid recently slashed the funding for the Yucca Mountain project and the state has filed multiple lawsuits in the Washington D.C. Court of Appeals. The maneuvers have been so successful that even if the project were approved today, experts estimate it would be another decade before the site was ready to receive spent nuclear energy.

Nuclear waste might not be on its way to Yucca, but the candidates are still using the project as a talking point when they campaign in the state. Presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama are both proponents of nuclear energy, but diverge in opinion when it comes to establishing a permanent repository for nuclear waste.

Sen. Obama has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from employees of Exelon Corporation, an Illinois-based energy company that controls most of the nuclear reactors in the United States. But Obama has consistently denounced the proposed site at Yucca Mountain as both a senator and presidential nominee and maintains that the country needs to find new solutions for disposing nuclear waste.

Sen. John McCain supported President Bush's approval of the project in 2002 and in the beginning stages of his bid for the White House he furthered his stated stance -- until recently.

During a campaign trip in Denver, Colorado, at the end of May, McCain seemed to back away from Yucca as the ideal storage site during a speech about nuclear energy policy.

"I would seek to establish an international repository for spent nuclear fuel that could collect and safely store materials overseas," McCain said. "It is even possible that such an international center could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada."

McCain reiterated support for Yucca shortly after the Denver speech -- and after being accused of backtracking by Sen. Reid.

If McCain runs away from his voting record, he "won't hold his already suspicious, conservative base," Herzik said.

Herzik's polling data shows that about 30 percent of Nevadans don't oppose Yucca, 20 percent support the project, and 20 percent not only oppose the repository but consider it a defining issue.

"For the people for whom Yucca is a to-die for issue, they're not going to vote for a Republican anyway," Herzik said.

The real question for Senators Obama and McCain should be whether focusing on Yucca as Nevada's central issue makes sense as a campaign strategy in a state that pollsters say could go either way.

"I'm not even sure most people know where Yucca Mountain is," said Rick Malone, who moved to Las Vegas 45 years ago and says the economy, not nuclear waste, should be the candidates' top priority.

Success for a presidential hopeful in Nevada could hinge on figuring out how to speak to the concerns of residents throughout the state, not just to the anti-Yucca contingent in Clark County.

"For Democrats, Yucca's a convenient club to use on Republicans," said historian and professor Mike Green. "But Yucca Mountain is just not that important as a national, political issue when people go to the polls in Nevada."