WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers from South Carolina and Washington state, which hold tons of nuclear waste, are none too pleased that leading candidates for the GOP presidential nomination are backing President Barack Obama's decision to shutter a central dump designed to store their waste.
When Obama cut out funding for the long-planned Yucca Mountain waste repository near Las Vegas in 2009, Republicans accused him of playing politics in a bid to help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his tough Nevada re-election race.
The Yucca site has been extremely unpopular in Nevada since Congress in 2002 authorized building a huge storage vault beneath the mountain as the nation's central nuclear waste dump.
Now GOP White House aspirants eager to win votes in Nevada's Jan. 14 Republican presidential caucus have come out against Yucca, just like Obama and Reid.
At the GOP presidential debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday evening, candidates competed to see who could appear more anti-Yucca.
"What right do 49 states have to punish one state and say, 'We're going to put our garbage in your state?'" said Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. "I think that's wrong."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney quickly followed suit.
"Congressman Paul is right on that," he said. "The idea that 49 states can tell Nevada, 'We want to give you our nuclear waste,' doesn't make a lot of sense. I think the people of Nevada ought to have the final say as to whether they want that."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was not to be outdone.
"You know, from time to time, Mitt and I don't agree, but on this one, he hit the nail on the head," he said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia was the only candidate who defended the Yucca dump, noting that scientists had studied waste-storage sites exhaustively and concluded that the Nevada site was the best option without major safety threats.
"We have to find some method of finding a very geologically stable place, and most geologists believe that, in fact, Yucca Mountain is that," Gingrich said.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, a first-term South Carolina Republican whose congressional district is home to the Savannah River Site nuclear complex — and its 4,000 metric tons of waste — warned the White House candidates that his state has the first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary.
"I suspect many South Carolina voters, including myself, will expect to hear the presidential candidates' solution to this problem during their next visit to the Palmetto State," Duncan said.
David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the Republican candidates at the Las Vegas debate were merely playing to a very different audience of Nevadans who oppose the Yucca site.
"Supporting it would hurt them," Damore said of the candidates. "It would be a negative ad waiting to happen. The path of least resistance is to say the right thing and get it over with. It's just not worth the political risk."
Tens of thousands of tons of highly toxic waste are in limbo at the country's 65 commercial nuclear power plants, and at former nuclear weapons complexes in South Carolina, Washington, Idaho, Tennessee and elsewhere.
The Yucca site has been fought by Nevada politicians of all political stripes, joined by business groups and environmentalists, who fear the impact on Las Vegas' $6 billion tourism industry. They also raise safety concerns over transporting highly toxic waste across the state's roads and railways.
Prominent Republicans in South Carolina and Washington state are dismayed that their party's presidential candidates have switched sides on the contentious issue.
"Failing to open Yucca Mountain creates real problems for states like South Carolina," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. "I believe it's a mistake for the Republican Party to buy into the political answer like President Obama did. We should stick to the science."
The Savannah River Site, a former atomic arms factory on South Carolina's border with Georgia, holds 4,000 metric tons of waste slated for eventual storage at Yucca. Additional waste is in temporary storage casks at seven commercial nuclear power plants in South Carolina.
Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington state Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, also criticized the GOP presidential candidates' newfound opposition to Yucca.
"Despite Yucca Mountain being the law and $14.5 billion in taxpayer dollars spent to develop it, the Obama administration has taken several steps, without the consent of Congress, to terminate all operations," Hastings said. "Unfortunately, some are following his lead and playing political football with this critical issue to Washington and other states with nuclear repositories."
(Rob Hotakainen of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
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