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Mitt Romney Tries to Neutralize Yucca Mountain Issue in Quest for Nevada

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is taking no chances in what is expected to be a close contest for Nevada’s six electoral votes by neither opposing nor endorsing the controversial proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, though the issue will not likely be as prominent as in the past.

“I think [Romney] has hemmed and hawed” on whether he backs the project, said Jon Ralston, the Las Vegas Sun’s political columnist. “He is certainly going to try to play that issue to a draw.”

David Damore, a political science professor at University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said Romney has been “pretty agnostic” on the project in an effort not to get pinned down. For decades, politicians seeking to curry favor with Nevada voters have tried to outdo each other in opposing sending the nation’s nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.

Romney’s move will likely keep what is expected to be a tight race very tight, the pundits said. Supporting the waste repository hasn’t necessarily been political death in the state, but it has made contests closers. President George W. Bush, who vocally supported the project, won Nevada in 2000 and 2004, but only by about 30,000 votes. Romney’s position on the Yucca Mountain site calls for the people of Nevada to decide whether they want the nuclear waste and to determine what they should get if they do want it, according to a spokesman for the campaign.

Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the site in 1987 in part because Nevada had no political clout, the pundits said.

The Romney spokesman pointed to the former Massachusetts governor’s comments on the issue in last October’s primary debate in Las Vegas.

“The idea that 49 states can tell Nevada, ‘We want to give you our nuclear waste,’ doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Romney said. “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.”

“And by the way, if Nevada says, ‘Look, we don’t want it,’ then let other states make bids and say, ‘Hey, look, we’ll take it,’” Romney continued. “‘Here’s a geological site that we’ve evaluated. Here’s the compensation we want for taking it. We want you electric companies around the country that are using nuclear fuel to compensate us a certain amount per kilowatt hour, a certain amount per ton of this stuff that comes.’”

His comments come after President Barack Obama has joined with most members of the state’s Congressional delegation to oppose the project. Obama has gone further by zeroing out funding for construction of the repository in his budgets for the past few years, and federal officials have been looking for other ways to use the unfinished site.

Both Nevada pundits stressed that the issue is not expected to be as prominent as it has been because Nevada’s economic woes will trump the nuclear waste site project.
That is partly because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and other members of the state’s Congressional delegation have helped to starve it of funding.

Last week, Reid praised a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to delay ruling until December on whether to compel the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue licensing work on Yucca Mountain. Reid also moved recently to ensure that any new NRC chairman would continue to oppose giving Yucca a license to operate. Allison MacFarlane, who was confirmed as chairwoman by the Senate in June along with a pro-Yucca commissioner, has said Yucca Mountain is not geologically sound enough to be a permanent waste repository.

Ralston said there may be some sparring over Yucca with Obama’s camp seeking to paint Romney as a supporter of the project, but too not much. He also sees a possible similar effort in the race between Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) and Sen. Dean Heller (R) for the state’s second Senate seat.

“They will likely try to make it an issue in the presidential race because Obama committed to stop it and essentially has,” Ralston said. “They may try to find things that Romney has said to try to make him look like he favors Yucca Mountain. They may try something like that in the U.S. Senate race as well.”

Yucca Mountain was a more high-profile issue when Reid was running for re-election in 2010 and when Bush was seeking office.

Both pundits also noted that there is a Yucca fatigue with voters because it has been an issue for 25 years.

Damore thinks Romney’s stance on Yucca is emblematic of his cautious political strategy where he seems to be unwilling to take definitive positions on specific issues for fear of alienating voters.

Damore added that Sharron Angle, who ran against Reid in 2010, used the same strategy and came up short in a state where voters are yearning for specific solutions. Nevada has the highest unemployment rate and is first in home foreclosures.

“He’s falling into the trap that Sharron Angle fell into,” Damore said. “Everybody knows what the problems are; you don’t have to point out the problems. It’s what are your solutions, and he hasn’t articulated anything.”