Yucca Mountain prominent if Nevada caucus is moved up

If Democrats push Nevada’s caucus forward in the presidential nominating calendar in 2008, candidates will be competitive only if they oppose plans to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, according to several political observers in the state.

Opposing Congress’s decision to store radioactive waste in a mountain 90 miles from Las Vegas will be as important as support of ethanol subsidies are in Iowa’s caucus, said David Damore, political scientist at the University of Nevada in Reno. Eric Herzik, another political scientist at the same university, described Yucca Mountain as a litmus test for Democrats in the state.

When former state Sen. Joe Neal (D-Nev.) ran for governor in 2002, he did not oppose Yucca Mountain because it would bring jobs to the state. His position, coupled with proposals that were not considered friendly to the gambling industry, cost him dearly, as Democrats deserted him in droves.

National Democrats approved a measure Saturday to move Nevada and South Carolina close to the beginning of the presidential nominating process. The Democratic National Committee will vote on the decision when it meets next month in Chicago.

Western Democrats have sought to make their states more relevant to the nominating process for years. In 2005, some Democrats proposed creating a regional primary in eight Western states that would take place in early February. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and labor unions, which play a big role in Nevada politics, lobbied the Democratic Party’s rules and bylaws committee to take a chance on Nevada.

Yucca Mountain has been one of the biggest so-called “NIMBY” (“not in my back yard”) issues in U.S. politics during the past 20 years as opponents have thrown up court challenges and regulatory road blocks to stop the government from transporting and burying the waste in Nevada.

Siding with the opposition helped Bill Clinton win the state in 1992 and 1996. The Senate’s likely Democratic contenders for president in 2008 — Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), the party’s nominee in 2004; Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.); Joseph Biden (Del.); Evan Bayh (Ind.); Russ Feingold (Wis.); and Chris Dodd (Conn.) — voted against a resolution in 2002 that approved the Yucca Mountain location.

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Kerry’s running mate in ’04, voted for the measure. Edwards, upon being selected as vice president, immediately said he would defer to Kerry on the issue.

The Washington Post quoted Reid in 2004 as saying Edwards told him, “I am on the Yucca Mountain bandwagon.”

Edwards continues to oppose storing the waste in Nevada, said Kim Rubey, the spokeswoman for Edwards’s One America PAC.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean also supported moving nuclear waste to Nevada when he served as governor of Vermont.

But the issue, which the courts and regulatory agencies have taken up in recent years, seems to have lost some of its potency. Opposing the site at Yucca Mountain was not enough to help Kerry to win Nevada; President Bush defeated him 50 to 48 percent. In 2000, Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore 50 to 46 percent to win the state’s five electoral votes.

“I’m not going to kid you that it’s something that will have to be dealt with,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a political consultant in Nevada who lobbied for an early caucus date. “Other issues, economic and immigration, could overwhelm Yucca. Water, homeland-security and transportation funding [could] sway Nevada voters.”

Peggy Maze Johnson, the executive director of Nevada nuclear watchdog Citizen Alert, said, “I just don’t think that it’s going to be an issue. I just think any Democrat would not have a position that would be pro-Yucca Mountain.”

Iowa’s caucus, on Jan. 14, 2008, would remain the first test of the Democratic nomination calendar. Nevada’s caucus would be held five days later, and New Hampshire still would have the first Democratic primary election, on Jan. 22. South Carolina’s primary would take place a week later.

Meanwhile, the party’s decision has angered New Hampshire Democrats. Paul Hodes, a Democrat who is challenging Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), said, “This is a misguided attempt to fix a system that is not broken.”