Dump switch

GOP presidential candidates jump ship on Yucca

Over coffee at a Sparks restaurant, Washington political leader Gerry Pollet talked about a startling switch by Republican presidential candidates.

Over coffee at a Sparks restaurant, Washington political leader Gerry Pollet talked about a startling switch by Republican presidential candidates.

photo by DENNIS mYERS

The transcript of the Las Vegas debate among Republican presidential candidates can be read at http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1110/18/se.05.html

At a restaurant in Sparks, between sips of coffee and bites of breakfast, Gerry Pollet of Seattle talked about the Oct. 18 debate among Republican presidential candidates.

“I couldn’t believe they came out against Yucca Mountain,” he said. “It’s going to make it a lot easier for Nevada and difficult for Republicans if they win the presidency and try to start the dump up again.”

He called the candidate statements “a game changer” in the battle over whether to build the Yucca dump.

Pollet is head of Heart of America Northwest, a Washington citizens’ organization that monitors the multi-billion dollar cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation on the Columbia River. The debate he was discussing happened in Las Vegas.

Candidates Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry came out in opposition to opening the proposed dump for high level nuclear wastes at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in Nye County. Only Newt Gingrich supported the dump. Moderator Anderson Cooper did not give candidates Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum the opportunity to address the issue. Candidate Jon Huntsman, who did not take part in the debate, has a long history of opposition to the Yucca dump, dating back to his years as governor of Utah. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who was barred from the debate, is also on the record against the dump.

Paul: “What right does 49 states have to punish one state and say, ‘We’re going to put our garbage in your state’? I think that’s wrong.”

Romney: “I think the people of Nevada ought to have the final say as to whether they want that, and my guess is that for them to say yes to something like that, someone’s going to have to offer them a pretty good deal, as opposed to having the federal government jam it down their throat.”

Perry: “You know, from time to time, Mitt and I don’t agree. But on this one, he’s hit it, the nail, right on the head.”

Gingrich: “But we have to find some method of finding a very geologically stable place, and most geologists believe that, in fact, Yucca Mountain is that.”

Pollet was in Sparks on his way to Las Vegas, where he and other activist leaders from eight Western states were meeting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on nuclear issues in the West. At that conference, Pollet later said, there was agreement that the anti-Yucca statements had complicated life for advocates of opening the dump.

That sentiment was reinforced in the days after the debate, as leading congressional Republicans and Democrats and politicians in states with nuclear power plants freaked out over the apparent GOP about-face.

In California, which has two nuclear power plants and nine nuclear facilities being decommissioned, the Chinook Observer in Long Beach editorialized that the nation should “Stick with Yucca Mountain” because the “future health of Lower Columbia River communities partly depends on political courage today.”

In Washington, there was more distress. The state has one functioning power plant at Richland, a research reactor that is undergoing decommissioning in Seattle, and the Hanford mess on the Columbia River, where nuclear activities have been going on since the Manhattan project. Washington’s U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican who represents the Hanford area, linked the Republican presidential candidates to President Obama, who opposes the dump: “Unfortunately, some are following his lead and playing political football with this critical issue to Washington and other states with nuclear repositories.” The state’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray reiterated her support of the Yucca dump. The East Oregonian—Hanford is on the Washington/Oregon border—observed, “There is a reason states like to go first in the presidential primaries and caucuses. The candidates pay attention to their local issues.”

But the most furious reaction came in South Carolina, a state with nuclear power plants at Hartsville, Jenkensville, Seneca and York. In addition, the state has a federal reservation on the Savannah River created to refine nuclear materials for weapons that is undergoing a major cleanup. Nuclear wastes are currently secured in decommissioned reactor buildings.

The Las Vegas debate seemed to elevate the importance of the Yucca dump issue in South Carolina’s presidential primary. Gov. Nikki Haley, the state’s U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson, Tim Scott, Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney and James Clyburn and Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint put out statements of distress. The Spartanburg Herald Journal, the Aiken Standard and the Charleston Post Courier attacked Paul, Romney and Perry in editorials.

“Politicians are prone to telling voters what they want to hear,” according to the Post Courier, which apparently wants the candidates to tell South Carolinians instead of Nevadans what they want to hear.

Given that many accused the GOP candidates of opposing the dump because of the Nevada presidential caucuses on Feb. 4, South Carolina presents a ticklish problem for those candidates. Its presidential primary actually falls earlier than Nevada’s caucuses—Jan. 31, if that date holds. (When Florida moved its primary date up, South Carolina did the same, to preserve its “first in the south” tradition.) And the state’s primary carries greater prestige than the Nevada caucuses.

It appears that South Carolinians taken aback by the Las Vegas debate will be lying in wait for the candidates. “I suspect many South Carolina voters, including myself, will expect to hear the presidential candidates’ solution to this problem during their next visit to the Palmetto State,” Rep. Duncan said. In Aiken, the Standard editorialized, “Here’s hoping the GOP presidential field brings the traveling road show back to South Carolina for another debate so they can be asked again about Yucca Mountain.”

A couple of South Carolinians—U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and nuclear power supporter Clint Wolfe—mixed their messages a bit when they suggested that if Yucca didn’t open, they were prepared to dump in New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) where transuranic wastes are stored. Wolfe claimed that “the people of Carlsbad would welcome the mission intended for Yucca Mountain”—a contention that was rejected in New Mexico by anti-nuclear leader Don Hancock, who told the RN&R that on previous occasions when WIPP was proposed as a site for Yucca wastes, there was strenuous opposition in Carlsbad. In addition, he said, “As a result of that opposition, there are two [federal] laws that explicitly prohibit the use of WIPP for storage of other than transuranic waste,” which would prevent bringing in Yucca-type wastes.

Adding to the political discomfort cause by the Las Vegas debate was the fact that it was held on the same date that Republican congressmembers sent a letter to the White House charging the administration with “scientific misconduct,” using Yucca Mountain as their leading example. In most places, the debate story got attention and the letter story got ignored. Fox News buried the candidates’ stances on Yucca at the tail end of a story about the letter, but that was an exception.

The Wall Street Journal, which always views with alarm developments that are adverse to the dump, found spokespeople for the nuclear industry “weren’t eager Wednesday to talk about the Romney and Perry positions.”

In their debate comments, Paul, Romney and Perry also suggested that if the location for the dump was thrown open to bid instead of being forced on a state, states would be lining up for the chance to get the waste dump in exchange for federal goodies—a willingness that, if it exists, has been kept well hidden by the states for the past couple of decades.