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Obama and Yucca

The Yucca Mountain Project has fallen off the political radar in Nevada because, among other reasons, the planned nuclear waste repository has no certain opening date. The state’s elected officials have battled that bogeyman by withholding funding from the Department of Energy and challenging the project in court.

In the political realm, the Yucca Mountain issue has been so carefully muddled that candidates who’ve voted in favor of the dump have been able to twist their positions to seem friendly to Nevada. Thus, as the major parties prepare for Nevada’s Jan. 19 presidential caucuses, Republican Sen. John McCain, who openly supports the project, can defend his stance only by claiming other contenders are simply hypocrites.

John Kerry’s vote against the Yucca Mountain Project and his promise to shutter the facility as president were ignored by the GOP attack machine in the 2004 presidential election, thanks to a letter Kerry had written advocating the exploration of deep geological burial of nuclear waste. Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards, actually voted for the Yucca Mountain Project, requiring state Democrats to accept his “new thinking” on the project as an honest change of heart. Instead it appeared as just more political pandering.

That’s why Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., will have a hard time answering questions about the Yucca Mountain Project this year in the run-up to Nevada’s early 2008 caucus.

When he was in Las Vegas in March for a health care forum, Obama told The Associated Press he opposed the repository and would look to regional storage as a solution. Surely that could not have meant keeping the stuff in Illinois, where much of the nation’s commercial nuclear waste is generated.

On June 30, 2006, Obama and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wrote a letter to Sen. Pete Domenici, D-N.M., who at the time chaired a key energy subcommittee.

“Senator Obama and I want to make it clear to the chairman that any plan to create regional nuclear waste sites without any local veto power is unacceptable,” Durbin said at the time. “Illinois must not become a dumping ground — even a temporary one — for nuclear waste brought in from other states.”

Of course, that’s what the junior senator from Illinois is supposed to do. Illinois has 11 nuclear power plants, which generate 48 percent of the state’s power. But what should Nevadans think now as Obama runs a national campaign? If he still supports regional storage, might not Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, be acceptable as a “temporary” site?

But Obama’s Yucca problems don’t end with his parochial view of the dump. He’s also hip-deep in financial ties that McCain or Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney will be able to exploit.

Obama has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the nation’s largest nuclear power operator. Exelon Corp. is the second-largest contributor to Obama’s presidential campaign, after financial services company UBS, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Exelon executives and employees have given $161,000 to Obama’s presidential bid. He’s received an additional $86,000 since 1998 from Exelon’s political action committee, employees and predecessor, Commonwealth Edison. Obama got money from the company in his 1998 bid for the Illinois state Senate and for his failed 2000 congressional campaign. Exelon also donated to Obama’s PAC and his successful 2004 U.S. Senate bid.

Someone donating that much cash wants an ear in the White House. So what does Exelon Chief Executive Officer John Rowe want? Fortune magazine, in a May 15, 2006, article titled “Meet Mr. Nuke,” details Rowe’s call to solve the waste problem before additional nuclear power plants are built. “We have to be able to look the public in the eye and say, ‘If we build a plant, here’s where the waste will go,’ ” Rowe told Fortune.

The Yucca Mountain Project is the “linchpin” to solving the waste problem and building new plants, Rowe told U.S. News and World Report for an Oct. 22, 2006, article, “Mired in Yucca muck.” Rowe is co-chairman of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a privately funded advocacy group formed in the aftermath of Dick Cheney’s secret energy task force. Rowe is also on the board of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

If it were just Rowe’s support, or just the donations, or just the Domenici letter, Obama might be able to successfully play the Edwards card to Democratic caucus voters. Iraq, health care and education still trump Yucca Mountain among Nevadans. But having that combination of money, the executive’s advocacy and a letter the candidate wrote could definitely tip the scales.

Maybe that’s why Obama didn’t bring up Yucca Mountain during his big public rally in Las Vegas in February.

The Obama campaign said Monday the candidate did not accept money from Exelon’s lobbyists. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the letter shows Obama “doesn’t believe any state should be burdened with storing the waste from others as long as the state has a storage site to deal with its own waste.”

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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