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The political fallout from a nuclear-waste decision

Republicans face potential losses in Nevada, a swing state, after Bush's ruling on Yucca Mt.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 2002



LAS VEGAS

President Bush's recent decision to make Yucca Mountain the nation's nuclear-waste storehouse is settling across Nevada's political landscape like a mushroom cloud.

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The move has sparked renewed fears among residents. And there's evidence this is improving Democrats' chances to win control of the US House of Representatives in the fall. Even a mild anti-Republican backlash will boost the Democratic candidate in a close-fought and nationally important House race here.

But it's even more likely to hurt Mr. Bush's prospects for winning this crucial swing state in 2004.

Dissatisfaction with the president is so strong that, "If the election were held today, and Bush was on the ballot, almost anyone could beat him," says Ted Jelen, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Candidate Bush came to Nevada in 2000 and promised to base a decision on Yucca on "sound science." Many figured that meant he wouldn't move in the near future - because of what they see as weak scientific certainty about the plan's safety. The pledge boosted voter turnout for Bush, who eked out 49 percent of the vote to Al Gore's 46 percent. Without Nevada's four electoral votes, Bush wouldn't have won the White House.

But then last month, Bush officially chose the site as the nation's main nuclear-waste storage depot. The plan will likely be vetoed by Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn. A majority in the US Congress can - and likely will - override that veto, because most states want to get rid of their waste.

Court battles could delay the plan. But if it goes forward, 77,000 tons of nuclear waste and spent fuel will be ferried from 131 reactors in 39 states and buried in underground storage rooms. Officials say it will be safe for 10,000 years.

Yucca Mountain is a craggy, remote tower of high-desert volcanic rock that's 100 miles - and an entire world - away from the endless strip malls and lush softball fields of suburban Las Vegas.

But residents clearly feel threatened. "I'm not down with that at all," says Shelby Ransome, who's sitting on bleachers at a softball field before his adult-league practice. "We're gonna be glowing. We'll go to other cities, and people will say: 'They're from Nevada - they're glowing.' " As for Bush, he says, "He's got to go."

Perhaps to shore up support for Bush, two Cabinet stars were in the state just days after the decision was announced. Homeland security chief Tom Ridge toured a possible national anti-terrorism training center near Las Vegas. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld heaped praise on Nellis Air Force Base, allaying concern that it may be axed in the next round of base closures.

But if Bush's team aims to shore up the boss, much work is left to be done. Typically about 80 percent of Nevadans say they're against storing nuclear waste at Yucca. And in a University of Nevada survey just before Bush's decision, Yucca was tied for first place among Nevadans' top concerns.

One recent poll found 68 percent of Nevadans saying Yucca storage is inevitable, no matter how vigorous the protests. Indeed, there's an air of resignation here, which could ultimately help Bush and Republicans by dampening the backlash.

"Nevada can stomp its feet all it wants, but the government is going to do what it does," says Bill Bokovi, a high-school science teacher as he picks up his sons from baseball practice.

An early test of how the decision will affect Nevada politics is this fall's race for the new Third Congressional District, which was added during redistricting.

This largely suburban area split evenly between Bush and Gore in 2000, with both men getting 48 percent. Because Democrats need only six seats to grab control of the House, it's a closely watched race. Republican perennial Jon Porter is taking on Dario Herrera, a Democratic county-commission chair.

Herrera sees opportunity in Bush's decision. He's trying to tie Mr. Porter to Republicans who back Yucca storage.

Porter campaign manager Mike Slanker admits Bush's decision "hurts a bit," but Democrats trying to nationalize the race "is a classic maneuver, and we're ready for them."

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