LAS VEGAS — Sen. John Kerry promised yesterday never to store the nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a major play for votes in this swing state that would mean the waste would remain stored at dozens of sites throughout the country.
“When John Kerry is president, there’s going to be no nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain — period,” the Democratic nominee for president said at a forum with supporters held to highlight the issue.
Burying nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is the federal government’s solution to storing the nuclear waste that has accumulated at power plants and temporary storage facilities in the past 50 years.
The Department of Energy first began planning for storage in Yucca Mountain 25 years ago, and the Bush administration won overwhelming congressional approval in 2002 to proceed with the project. The administration is deciding whether to appeal a federal appeals court decision that threatens to derail the project.
Republicans say Mr. Kerry wasn’t always an opponent of the project, but on an issue that unites Nevada voters and that puts Mr. Bush on the other side, Democrats see a huge opportunity. They even found room in their dramatically slimmed-down party platform this year to specifically oppose the Yucca project.
The issue is so prominent that the differences between the president and Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, who opposes storage here, is major news. The 1987 appropriations bill that deemed Yucca the chosen site for waste is known here as the “screw Nevada bill.”
“In Nevada, this is the issue,” said the state’s other senator, Democrat Harry Reid.
Republicans, knowing the power of the issue, sought to try to discredit Mr. Kerry as dishonest and pandering to Nevada voters.
“John Kerry voted for Yucca Mountain before he voted against it. His voting record until 1997 is one of supporting the repository, and he voted to make Nevada the sole repository site for waste,” Mr. Ensign said in a statement released by the Bush campaign.
However, Mr. Kerry said although he voted in favor of the project on “a few procedural votes,” he supported Mr. Reid and opposed storage in Yucca “when it has counted, on real votes.”
Mr. Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards, has voted for the Yucca project as well. But he called Mr. Reid the day before Mr. Kerry named him to the ticket and told the Nevadan that he would oppose storage at Yucca Mountain.
A Mason-Dixon poll from late July found Mr. Bush leading Mr. Kerry 46 percent to 43 percent in Nevada, with 4 percent favoring independent candidate Ralph Nader and 7 percent undecided. But among the undecided respondents, opposing Yucca Mountain is a winning stance, the polls found.
Mr. Kerry said that by pursuing the Yucca site, the president broke a promise to Nevada residents. During the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush pledged to abandon the project if it wasn’t backed by sound science.
“This is not just a Nevada issue. This is not just Yucca Mountain. It’s about America, and it’s about the relationship between people who lead, people who govern, and you,” Mr. Kerry said.
He also said that transporting the waste represents a potential terror risk and that it is easier to guard the waste if it is left at existing sites.
Also at yesterday’s forum, held at Ralph Cadwallader Middle School, Mr. Reid relayed how Mr. Kerry performed the Heimlich maneuver 16 years ago to save the life of Sen. Chic Hecht, Nevada Republican.
Mr. Reid said Mr. Hecht began choking on a piece of apple during the weekly Republican caucus lunch and ended up stumbling out of the lunchroom to try to vomit, when he ran into Mr. Kerry, who was walking into the Democrats’ weekly lunch.
“Coincidentally, Senator Kerry was walking into our caucus. He was a little bit late. Other people had walked by Senator Hecht and watched him, in the process of dying, didn’t know what to do,” Mr. Reid said. “Senator Kerry, immediately upon seeing him, knew he was in a state of distress, gave him the Heimlich maneuver, saved his life.”
Mr. Kerry said it was divine providence he was there.