WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s decision to bypass Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository should give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a boost in his bid for a fifth term. The action is not doing another endangered Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, any favors.
And the same could be said for Democratic lawmakers in South Carolina who have distanced themselves from the administration’s decision. Democratic Reps. John Spratt and Jim Clyburn have been particularly critical of shelving Yucca in recent months.
“I am doubtful that there are easy alternatives to the Yucca Mountain site,” Spratt, chairman of the House Budget Committee, said during a hearing he called in late July.
Washington and South Carolina are plaintiffs in a lawsuit designed to keep Yucca Mountain as an option for stockpiling the nation’s nuclear waste. Both states served critical roles in the development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and now both are dealing with the challenge of storing large amounts of high-level nuclear waste for decades to come.
Support for Yucca Mountain in the two states shows that positions on how to deal with nuclear waste are often shaped by regional differences rather than partisan ones. While the fate of Yucca is not a dominant issue in political campaigns outside of Nevada, it could play a contributing role in some close races elsewhere.
In Washington state, Republican rival Dino Rossi is questioning whether Murray has done enough to challenge Reid and President Barack Obama over Yucca Mountain.
“She’s No. 4 in leadership. It’s not like she has no power,” Rossi said. “She should be able to convince these folks that this is important.”
Rossi is hoping to tap into the disdain in central Washington for the Yucca Mountain decision, which many view as steeped in politics rather than science.
In 2002, Congress designated the site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas as the final resting place for nuclear wastes now accumulating at about 80 sites in 35 states. But Obama promised to close down the project during his 2008 campaign. In the general election, he captured Nevada with 55 percent of the vote.
Central Washington is home to the Hanford Nuclear Site, which contains more than 53 million gallons of nuclear waste in 177 underground storage tanks. The timeline for removing Hanford’s nuclear waste could be extended by decades if Obama’s decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain project stands.
Rossi has a tough task on his hands. His biggest complaint is that Murray didn’t oppose confirmation of three members to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. During their confirmation, they were asked if they would second-guess the Energy Department’s decision to withdraw its license application for Yucca Mountain. Each replied no.
Murray said she did not hold up the NRC commissioners because “we needed the commission in place.”
In 2002, Murray was one of five Democratic senators to support designating Yucca Mountain as the repository for nuclear waste. In March, when the Energy Department withdrew its application to build the storage site, Murray gave Energy Secretary Steven Chu an earful when he appeared before a Senate committee.
“I just think it’s irresponsible,” she told Chu.
Last month, Murray led a group of 91 lawmakers who wrote a letter to Chu asking the department to halt the dismantling of operations at Yucca Mountain.
“I can’t remember a time that Patty Murray hasn’t been actively in favor of Yucca Mountain,” said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council, a nonpartisan group that spearheads local economic development efforts near Hanford.