GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has so far sidestepped the high-stakes debate over the fate of the abandoned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, but his running mate -- Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin -- may have a harder time averting the question.
Ryan has cast a series of votes in recent years that show he is supportive of building a nuclear waste storage site under Yucca Mountain, a high desert ridge about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Some lawmakers see the site as a potential solution to addressing the dilemma of trying to find a final resting place for thousands of tons of hot, radioactive waste from commercial nuclear plants.
But Ryan's public support of the project contrasts with Romney's hands-off approach -- and that could be significant in Nevada, a swing state in this year's presidential election where most political leaders are vehemently opposed to the waste dump.
Romney said during a CNN-sponsored debate in Las Vegas last October that it "doesn't make a lot of sense" for "49 states to tell Nevada that we can give you our nuclear waste" (E&E Daily, Oct. 19, 2011).
Political analysts say the mismatch could put some pressure on Romney to clarify his opinion on the shuttered waste site when he returns to Nevada, especially because House Republicans have been waging a fight to reopen the site, which the Obama administration has officially abandoned.
Jon Ralston, Nevada's top political analyst, said Ryan is "clearly supportive of Yucca Mountain based on his voting record."
The Badger State Republican joined other House Republicans in 2002 in voting for a nonbinding resolution opposing former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn's (R) decision to veto the use of Yucca Mountain as a waste site (Greenwire, May 9, 2002).
Ryan also joined his Republican House colleagues this summer in approving a fiscal 2013 energy and water appropriations bill that included a $10 million boost to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's review of the Energy Department's application to build the repository.
And when former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, a Democrat, said he was halting the review because the agency received no money from Congress, Ryan stepped in to ask for an investigation. He joined House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) in calling on Office of Management and Budget acting Director Jeffrey Zients to review Jaczko's decision and said Yucca was still legally the country's only repository.
Romney, on the other hand, has avoided public support of the waste site and instead indicated during the Las Vegas debates that states could bid on the right to store the waste in exchange for compensation.
Romney may be pushed to clarify his position on the waste site, but that pressure will be muted because it is no longer a "front-burner" issue compared to high unemployment and home foreclosures, Ralston said.
Yucca Mountain is more of a "media issue than a voting issue," he said, and most Nevadans don't know about the repository, are sick of hearing about it or don't think the project will advance because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to kill the project.
"Romney could do what he's done on some other things and say, 'We don't have the same position on everything,'" Ralston said. "But even more importantly, I don't think Yucca Mountain is an issue for most people; it's not a front-burner issue."
On the other hand, Democrats could jump on the Yucca Mountain closure to garner support in Nevada, he said.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see some kind of targeted campaign by the Obama team that he did stop Yucca Mountain, that he kept his promise," Ralston said. "If the race ends up being close, maybe then it could end up being a factor. I'm just saying it's not a front-burner voting issue for the majority of Nevadans."
David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, agreed that Romney could be pushed to clarify his position on the waste site but added that jobs and the economy overshadow the issue when it comes to the election.
Damore also noted that Reid has been successful in securing Allison Macfarlane as the new chairwoman of NRC after Jaczko resigned earlier this year. Macfarlane has pledged to keep an open mind about the repository, but some experts have said her past work indicates that she is skeptical of the Nevada site (E&ENews PM, July 24).
"If [the election] was close, I would say that Democrats would dig that stuff up [about Yucca] but it doesn't resonate the way it did three or four cycles ago," Damore said. "A lot of it is just because Reid has been so successful in zeroing out the budget, trying to get his appointees on the NRC."