Yucca: Mountain or Mole Hill?

Consider one of the more peculiar campaign issues to surface in recent days: Yucca Mountain. Never heard of it? (Hint: It’s not the biking destination of either candidate.) As Steve Sebelius, columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal writes: “To Nevada, it’s a litmus test. To the rest of the country, it’s a funny name.”

The New York Times’ Jodi Wilgoren, on the trail with John Kerry, today provides her national audience with a crash course on the controversial high-level nuclear waste site, slated to — some day, maybe — kick into operation just 100 miles outside Las Vegas. The Washington Post’s Jim VandeHei, reporting from Nevada, also weighs in with his own take on what until now has largely been a local issue.

Politically, how important is Yucca Mountain to the Bush and Kerry camps? Writes VandeHei:

In the 2000 campaign, Bush said he would oppose the Yucca Mountain site unless it was deemed scientifically safe, a position state political analysts credited for helping the Republican narrowly carry Nevada. One year after taking office, however, Bush designated the mountain the final — and environmentally safe — resting place for the nuclear waste stored at more than 100 locations nationwide. … Republican strategists concede that this issue alone could cost Bush the state’s five electoral votes in a close race.

This year, the Democrats specifically included a plank in their party platform opposing the project, saying Yucca Mountain has “not been proven to be safe by sound science.”

Okay, then, how important is Yucca Mountain to Nevada voters? The Las Vegas Sun’s Kirsten Searer last month reported that while residents of the Silver State don’t want the repository, and oppose its completion, its future may not be their top priority when they step into the voting both. But neither the Democrats nor Republicans are willing to take that chance.

Needless to say, when politics and science converge, you don’t get an issue that can be summarized briefly (although the Review-Journal’s Sebelius, who knows the issue inside-out, neatly summed up the political baggage of both parties in the space of a single column.) But given the media’s obsessions with far less weighty matters this campaign season — appearances, Howard Dean’s scream, and the “shove it” crack — the debate over Yucca Mountain seems worth a passing examination, if only to remind voters of why some people care so passionately about it. Billions of dollars already have been spent on the project, designed to store spent reactor fuel for the improbable period of more than 10,000 years. (Think twice as old as the Pyramids.) It’s an idea that’s been kicking around since the early 1980s, and will probably be kicking around long after Emma Clair and little Jack Edwards have grandkids.

Providing this type of background reporting on demand, plus the hour-by-hour coverage obligatory for so many campaign reporters, is probably asking too much. Thus Campaign Desk once again offers a modest proposal for editors back at home: Create a small team of fast, thorough reporters whose primary task is to supplement the helter-skelter daily political coverage by providing the crucial digging to supply context and sythesis on the issue of the moment. If Yucca Mountain suddenly is on the lips of the candidates, and of the media transcribing their words, then perhaps the rest of the nation would like a little refresher course.

Who knows — maybe even the candidates themselves would learn something.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.