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Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear site a dilemma for Republican hopefuls

Republican presidential candidates are facing a quandary on Yucca Mountain: oppose the nuclear waste repository and trigger a Tea Party backlash, or support it and risk alienating Nevada voters.

The Nevada caucus, which is scheduled for Feb. 18 — after Iowa and New Hampshire — could go a long way in determining the GOP presidential nominee in 2012.

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In contrast to GOP leaders in Congress, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Gary Johnson and Ron Paul have all come out in opposition to storing the nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Other Republican candidates, including Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MSNBC host: Boehner going after GOP 'crazies' now is 'too little too late' MORE, have ripped the Obama administration’s effort to close Yucca. Mitt Romney, who won the 2008 Nevada GOP caucus, has not taken a firm stance on the controversial issue.

The Hill contacted each of the 2012 Republican presidential campaigns, but most of them didn’t want to discuss the matter, opting not to return calls or emails.

A 2008 poll found that 76 percent of Nevada voters were against the facility. 

“The candidates don’t want to come to Nevada and be labeled pro-Yucca,” University of Las Vegas political scientist David Damore said. “You’re only going to get in trouble.”

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), an Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairman, disagrees. Shimkus, who visited Yucca Mountain earlier this year, claims there is a lot of support for the initiative in Nevada. At a hearing last month, Shimkus cited a Government Accountability Office report that found taxpayers have already paid $15 billion toward the Yucca Mountain project, which was initially chosen in the 1980s as a location to store nuclear waste.

Pawlenty’s opposition to the site represents a reversal for the former Minnesota governor. Pawlenty expressed support for the plan in 2002, when he saw it as a viable option for removing nuclear waste from his state. But in a recent interview, Pawlenty stated he now opposes the Yucca Mountain repository due to its earthquake-prone location, although he maintains faith in the concept of a centralized waste repository.

Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, has long opposed the facility and its attendant shipments of radioactive materials through Utah. 

“I don’t think there’s any reason we should be in the transportation and storage of this material,” he said at a 2005 press conference. The governor went on to criticize the plan as a mere stopgap solution.

Paul was outspoken in his opposition to the plan during the 2008 presidential primary, reminding Nevada voters that he was one of just a few House members to vote against the legislation that originally funded the facility.

At a campaign stop in Nevada in 2008, Romney explained that he would “want to see what the results of [the safety] review are” before taking a position on the repository. 

Gingrich has downplayed his support of Yucca. As Speaker of the House, Gingrich spearheaded legislation establishing the site despite then-President Clinton’s promise to veto such a bill. 

Santorum supported the plan when it came under fire in 2002: “There should be a safe place to move this hazardous material away from heavily populated cities and water supplies,” said one Santorum news release. At a speech to South Carolina Republicans earlier this year, Santorum expressed continued support for the repository. His home state of Pennsylvania has the second largest store of nuclear waste in the nation; South Carolina has the third largest. The Yucca repository represents a potential solution to both states’ nuclear storage issues. 

Bachmann in 2009 described Yucca Mountain as “a key component to any plan that puts America on the path to energy independence” and was one of 25 House members to sign on to a letter to the Department of Energy advocating its reopening. She also voted in favor of the 2011 appropriations bill that continued funding for the facility.

Sarah Palin, whose presidential intentions remain unclear, remarked that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWhite House races clock to beat GOP attacks Harry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' The Memo: Biden seeks a secret weapon — GOP voters MORE (D-Nev.) “can’t claim to support development of clean nuclear energy and then gut our options.”

Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, has also expressed concern about the waste’s route through his state. At a 1999 conference of governors from Western states, he announced his opposition to the concept of a centralized waste repository, explaining, “No state is going to accept this interim facility — it’s just not going to happen.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill have claimed the Obama administration’s decision to abandon the Yucca Mountain facility has been based on political, rather than scientific, considerations. 

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House Republicans have moved legislation that would ban the closing of Yucca, but Reid has vowed to thwart the measure.

On July 1, Reid, a longtime Yucca foe, lauded a federal court’s dismissal of litigation challenging the Energy Department’s effort to scuttle the proposed site.

The legal challenge, which will continue, was brought by the states of Washington and South Carolina. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are the only four states that are allowed to hold nominating contests before March 1. Florida has threatened to move its contest up, but could face sanctions from the Republican Party if it does.

All of the major Democratic candidates in 2008 spoke out against Yucca Mountain before the Nevada caucus, which was won by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 Close the avenues of foreign meddling Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report MORE.