TCS Daily

Kerry's Radioactive Flip-Flop

By James K. Glassman - August 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Relaxing by the pool as Labor Day nears?

Then consider that, as you read this, more than 100 million pounds of high-level nuclear waste is buried -- temporarily and not too safely -- at 131 separate sites in 39 states around the country.

About two-thirds of Americans live within 75 miles of one of these sites, which are exposed to terrorism, corrosion and just plain accidents. If you live in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco, Washington, Miami or dozens of other urban areas, you've got dangerous radioactivity right nearby. One big threat: the waste will start leaking into drinking-water supplies.

But help is on the way!

Actually, it's been on the way since 1956, when the federal government began studying the problem. Finally, in 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Disposal Act, which proposed that radioactive leftovers -- from submarines and power plants -- be stored in a secure, remote place.

In 1987, a separate law established such a place -- in the distant desert, 1,000 feet inside Yucca Mountain, adjacent to the Nevada Test Site. Yucca is on federal land, surrounded on three sides by an Air Force base. You couldn't dream of a better venue.

But it's not surprising that in Las Vegas and elsewhere in the state, the law designating Yucca is called the Screw Nevada Act. Among the Senators who voted for it -- responsibly, in my view -- was John Kerry.

The 1987 law unleashed $4 billion worth of research, 100 public hearings, and 5.6 million pages of documents, all indicating that Yucca was as risk-free as anything in this life. For example, the shields covering waste buried there would corrode by an estimated 0.03 inches over 10,000 years.

The attacks of 9/11, in particular, lit a fire under policymakers, and, at long last, in February 2002, Energy Secretary Spence Abraham formally recommended that President Bush adopt Yucca Mountain as "the nation's first long-term geological repository for high-level radioactive waste." Bush agreed, and so did Congress -- but not, this time, Sen. Kerry.

It's wise to be wary when one candidate accuses another of "flip-flopping," but Bush's characterization of Kerry is undeniable. This guy would make a Nevada desert chameleon jealous.

When asked why he had switched positions, the late John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century, once said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

In this case, the main fact that changed was that John Kerry was no longer merely a junior senator from Massachusetts but a serious candidate for president. Nevada, which Bush carried in 2000 with just 51.9 percent of the vote, is in play.

As a result, it is no exaggeration to say that Yucca Mountain could be ground zero on Nov. 2, 2004.

Earlier this month, both presidential candidates were in Nevada. According to the Ely Times, Kerry said he would "do everything possible to halt the Yucca Mountain project." According to the Las Vegas Sun, Bush said that he backed Yucca because of "sound science" and pointed out that Kerry "says he is strongly against Yucca here in Nevada, but he voted for it several times. And so did his running mate."

Bush added, "My point to you is that if they're going to change, one day they may change again.... I think you need somebody who is going to do what he says he's going to do."

That, in brief, is how Bush is trying to define himself against Kerry: "I say something, and I do it. He says something and changes his mind." Resolution is nice to have in a wartime president.

Yucca is a defining issue, as well, because it shows the president is serious about making the nation safer from terrorists and establishing a rational energy policy -- which includes diversifying and enhancing supply, not just reducing demand (as Kerry wants). Waste storage is a major reason that the U.S. stopped building nuclear power plants, which now generate only 20 percent of our electricity.

Could Yucca lose Nevada for Bush? Yes, indeed. But Nevada has only five electoral votes. Let me make a suggestion: Why not focus on winning supporters in the 39 states whose radioactive wastes would be removed to Yucca? Among them are such battlegrounds as Ohio, with three nuclear-waste sites; Missouri, three sites; Pennsylvania, six sites; and Florida, four sites.

That's 79 electoral votes right there.


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