LAS VEGAS - The leading Democratic presidential candidates are united on the government's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage plan: They'd scrap it.
Their vigorous opposition to the project reflects Nevada's importance as one of a handful of states that will lead off voting in January for the Democratic and Republican nominations. Few local issues are as unpopular with Nevadans as the waste dump.
The Democrats have just one problem - their records keep getting in the way. Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has created suspicion in some corners of the anti-Yucca lobby because she's refused to rule out expansion of nuclear power as a solution to the nation's energy woes and has received campaign contributions from the nuclear industry. Barack Obama, whose home state of Illinois has more nuclear plants than any other, also has received substantial contributions from the industry and wants to leave nuclear power on the table.
John Edwards, when he was a North Carolina senator, voted twice to open the dump and once against it. Bill Richardson once ran the Energy Department, which is building the dump, and voted for it when he was a New Mexico congressman.
The dump, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was supposed to open in 1998, but scientific controversies, lawsuits and money shortages have delayed it. Its opening is now projected for no earlier than 2020 and its cost has climbed to an estimated $77 billion.
The issue has been almost invisible on the Republican side of the race despite GOP plans to hold their presidential caucuses in Nevada on Jan. 19, the same day as Democrats.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has not given a clear answer on his position, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has said he will not rule out continuing work at Yucca Mountain, and Arizona Sen. John McCain has stuck to his support for the dump. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson voted in favor of the project while in Congress, but has not commented recently.
The GOP has generally been more willing than Democrats to increase the nation's share of electricity generated from nuclear power. The lack of a waste disposal site is a key obstacle to expansion.
Here's a look at the top Democrats' records on Yucca Mountain:
The New York senator recently used her seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee to call the first oversight hearing on the dump since Democrats took control of Congress.
Clinton voted against a 2002 attempt to override Nevada's rejection of the facility. She's promised to cut funding for the project if elected president.
At a South Carolina town hall in February, Clinton expressed concerns about waste disposal but noted that "nuclear power has to be a part of our energy solution."
Clinton has accepted thousands in contributions from the nuclear industry, including nearly $80,000 in this election from employees and a PAC of NRG Energy Inc., the first company to file an application for a new nuclear power plant in the United States since before the Three Mile Island accident.
Critics see a contradiction in Clinton's opposition to a facility to store nuclear waste, but not to expansion of nuclear power, which would generate more waste.
Clinton has said she does not believe the debate over the project is a referendum on nuclear energy.
She also has to struggle with her husband's record. She has described former President Bill Clinton as putting the project on life-support.
"You know, when my husband was president he vetoed a measure to try to push this forward, contrary to a lot of the questions that were being raised," Clinton told reporters recently. "That was toward the end of his administration and when the Bush administration came in, it revived it and gave it new life and kept it going."
The bill President Clinton vetoed would have opened an interim nuclear repository in Nevada, but did not slow the development of the permanent site.
"I would say that the project was advancing more during the Clinton years financially than at any other time," said former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a Republican, now a consultant for the Nuclear Energy Institute and an advocate for the repository. "They poured billions into it and didn't slow it down one bit."
He has said he's opposed to Yucca Mountain, and has called for the facility's closure.
Illinois' nuclear industry, which has thousands of tons of waste at its facilities awaiting opening of Yucca Mountain, has long backed Obama. Executives and employees of Exelon Corp., the Chicago-based energy giant and nuclear plant operator, have contributed more than $200,000 to Obama campaigns since 2004, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com.
Obama has said he believes nuclear energy should remain on the table.
Obama also raised eyebrows when he chose Federico Pena, who was energy secretary before Richardson, as his surrogate on the issue. At his departure from the Energy Department, Pena took credit for "meeting milestones" toward opening the site.
The former 2004 vice presidential nominee's has a mixed record on the issue.
After he was selected as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's running mate, Edwards announced he would defer to Kerry's anti-Yucca position and promised Nevada Sen. Harry Reid he would fight the project.
The former North Carolina senator has said he was trying to protect his constituents by supporting the dump in Nevada.
"We had an issue in North Carolina where they were going to start storing nuclear waste in North Carolina unless we had some other place for the nuclear waste," Edwards said on his first stop in Nevada as a presidential candidate. But looking at the project from a "national perspective" it doesn't work, he added.
Edwards now says faulty science was used to support the Yucca Mountain project, and he doesn't believe nuclear energy is a safe energy source.
Richardson, the New Mexico governor, has the most tangled record on nuclear waste disposal.
As a New Mexico congressman, he voted in favor of the 1987 measure that designated Yucca Mountain as the sole dump site to be studied by the federal government.
Richardson had not raised the issue on the stump or in statements until it was cited in news stories. He now says he's always opposed the project, which he believes would be unsafe.
"Nevada should say no, I've always said no," Richardson told reporters during an early campaign stop in the state.
Richardson explains his House vote as support for other funding items in the bill. He has said he voted against the project "five or six" other times, though his campaign could cite only two.
Richardson's claims of constant opposition also are not supported by his tenure as head of the Department of Energy.
Under Richardson, Yucca Mountain continued to receive funding, meet deadlines for key research and findings, and notably, passed a critical "viability assessment" that moved it closer to the designation in 2002 by President Bush and Congress as the nation's nuclear dump.
At the release of the 1998 report, Richardson acknowledged scientific concerns but added that "overall there is no reason to disqualify the site."
Bob Loux, head of the state Nuclear Projects Agency and the state's chief anti-Yucca administrator, noted that as energy secretary Richardson "was not in a position to kill Yucca."
"I just didn't see any evidence of any effort to slow the project down," Loux said.
Richardson did lobby against efforts to open a temporary waste storage site in Nevada.
He now says he believes the dump would be unsafe and wants to convert the site to a national laboratory.
On the Net
Yucca Mountain Project: http://www.ymp.gov
Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects: http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste
U.S. Geological Survey: http://water.usgs.gov/ympb/