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Rubio puts politics before science on Yucca Mountain

Running for president means you have to start taking positions on issues you haven’t worked on much before. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is learning the hard way how dangerous that can be.

Despite having no good reason to stick his thumb in the eye of an early caucus state, Sen. Rubio recently came out in favor of dumping our nation’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Most Nevadans don’t want it, and both of the state’s senators, including his Republican colleague Dean Heller, strongly oppose it. Politically, the project is as good as dead.

Sen. Rubio, who is visiting Las Vegas today for a fundraiser, apparently hopes he can revive it. His reasons are anyone’s guess. What we already know is that his position isn’t winning him many new friends.

Sen. Rubio had plenty of good reasons to not go down this road. In 2009, at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term, when former Energy Secretary Steven Chu was asked about the unpopular proposal, he said, “Yucca was supposed to be everything to everybody, and I think, knowing what we know today, there’s going to have to be several regional [storage] areas.” A blue ribbon commission established a few years later to study the problem came to the same conclusion.

The drive to keep Yucca Mountain on the table seems fueled by partisanship more than any legitimate public interest. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., doesn’t want to turn his state into a nuclear dumping ground. Some high-profile Republicans, therefore, think it’s a good idea regardless of its merits.

That includes Sen. Rubio. When he was asked about Yucca Mountain at this month’s South Carolina Freedom Summit, he replied, “You do need a permanent, central depository for it. Yucca Mountain is the place that’s gotten the money, and it was chosen years ago. So unless someone can identify a better project, that’s the one we should move forward on.”

Many Republicans are looking to Sen. Rubio as a forward-looking leader who can build the party’s credibility with young people. With all due respect to my friends across the aisle, I’m not sure supporting a locally unpopular nuclear waste dump is the right first step. I’m also not sure “We should do it because the idea’s been around for a while” represents strong leadership.

The problem with this thinking — which is, unfortunately, widespread in conservative circles — is that Nevada has been the focus of the nuclear disposal conversation because of politics, not science. Back in the 1980s, everyone agreed the country needed to put its nuclear waste somewhere, so after an expert panel identified 10 potential sites, President Ronald Reagan approved three — Yucca Mountain and locations in Washington state and Texas — for intensive scientific review. In 1987, Congress, led by House Speaker Jim Wright (from Texas) and House Majority Leader Tom Foley (from Washington state), passed a law ending that review and naming Yucca Mountain as the only site that would be studied.

Nevada has been left holding the bag ever since, even though the people who live there don’t want it and even though the state has no nuclear power plants of its own. Sen. Rubio might consider how Florida would feel after being told to store the country’s nuclear waste, regardless of public opinion. Would he still say, in effect, “This decision was made a long time ago and no one has a better idea”? Or would he listen to his constituents and say, “Shouldn’t we take a second look here?”

To his credit, Sen. Heller has vowed to continue opposing the Yucca Mountain boondoggle when Sen. Reid retires. So has Nevada Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, who recently signed on to be state director for the Rubio campaign. I’d suggest, with all sincerity, that Sen. Rubio talk with his Nevada colleagues before wading any deeper into the issue.

Yucca Mountain is not the answer to our country’s nuclear waste problems. Other countries, including Finland and Sweden, have thoughtfully reached out to local communities to find potential storage sites that wouldn’t generate massive opposition. They didn’t tell their own citizens, “We don’t care what you think.” They took public opinion into account. We should do the same — and so should Sen. Rubio.

Raul Grijalva represents Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District. He is the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

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