- The Washington Times - Monday, July 12, 2010

The recent ruling reviving the long, bitter debate over the Yucca Mountain waste storage plan has added an element of surprise to a U.S. Senate race in Nevada already on the verge of going nuclear.

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel said June 29 that the Obama administration cannot withdraw the nuclear-waste storage application without permission from Congress. The administration, which has already zeroed out the budget for the project to store all of the nation’s future nuclear waste material, appealed the ruling to the full commission last week.

Even if the commission reverses the decision, however, the timing all but guarantees that the issue will remain radioactive throughout one of the most closely watched Senate races this fall. The question: Does Yucca Mountain pack enough wallop to explode in one of the candidates’ faces, or will it detonate harmlessly miles from its target?

Nevada political strategists say that a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has never resonated with Nevada voters as much as it has with Washington’s political and media elite, especially Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the embattled Nevada Democrat.

Mr. Reid fiercely fought the idea and denounced congressional efforts to implement Yucca Mountain as the “Screw Nevada bill.”

But polls consistently show that while most Nevadans oppose a Yucca nuclear storage site, they also don’t consider it a top 10 or even top 25 issue.

“Yucca Mountain has never had an impact on races here, but you would never know it from reading stories in the national media,” said Las Vegas-based political consultant Ryan Erwin. “It doesn’t move voters here at all. One reason Al Gore lost Nevada in 2000 [in the presidential race] was because he did a laser focus on Yucca Mountain and it didn’t move voters at all.”

What the issue can do is reinforce the themes playing out in the contest between Mr. Reid - whose personal popularity has plummeted in recent months - and former state legislator Sharron Angle, his Republican rival.

Mr. Reid, who has long opposed the Yucca Mountain plan and recently declared it dead, can use the issue to remind voters of his clout in the Senate and influence with the administration. Mrs. Angle, who has proposed developing the Yucca site for processing spent nuclear fuel, although not as a “nuclear dump,” can emphasize the project’s potential for jobs at a time when the state suffers from one of the nation’s highest jobless rates.

The unstable element here is Mrs. Angle, who becomes the first statewide candidate in recent memory to favor Yucca Mountain as a storage site. Other Republicans winning the past few statewide elections, including Sen. John Ensign, Gov. Jim Gibbons and Gov. Kenny Guinn, opposed the project.

The Angle campaign has played down the issue and removed a statement on the project from her revamped website. On the issue, however, the campaign may just want to let Sharron be Sharron, said Eric Herzik, chairman of the University of Nevada at Reno’s political science department.

“Harry Reid will play it up and say we’ve got to stop it,” said Mr. Herzik. “Sharron Angle is the first major candidate for statewide office who’s for Yucca, and Harry Reid will undoubtedly go after her for it. She’ll say it will bring jobs, and if there was ever a time to bring this issue up, this is it.”

Despite his high perch in Washington, Mr. Reid has registered basement-level favorability ratings for the better part of a year back home largely because of the state’s high unemployment and house foreclosure rates. A Rasmussen Reports poll released June 24 showed Mrs. Angle leading him by 48 percent to 41 percent.

Mrs. Angle could use the issue to undermine Mr. Reid in two ways: first, by arguing that Yucca Mountain would bring hundreds of high-tech and engineering jobs to the economically foundering region; and second, by undermining his status as a power broker by pointing out that he hasn’t been able to kill the project.

“The timing is bad for Harry Reid in that he could have claimed this as a victory - ‘I stopped Yucca Mountain,’ ” said Mr. Herzik. “Now he’s going to say, ‘We’ve got to keep fighting it,’ but at what point are people going to say, ‘You’ve been fighting this for 20 years, how come you haven’t stopped it yet?’

“It’s a piece of her argument against his effectiveness,” he said.

Yucca Mountain is also expected to steal headlines in September, when a federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments on a lawsuit filed by several states, including South Carolina and Washington, to resurrect the project.

One reason for the lack of passion among Nevada voters is that the plan has been under discussion for a generation, with little to show for it. Even under the George W. Bush administration, which approved the Yucca Mountain project, the repository for radioactive waste wasn’t slated to open until 2017.

“If people actually perceived it as being imminent, maybe they would get more interested, but so far it’s never even been close to happening,” said Mr. Erwin. “There are so many more higher priorities for people right now, like feeding their families and holding on to their houses.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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