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Yucca Mountain Mudslide: Both Sides Dissemble on Nuclear Waste Dump in Nevada

MoveOn.org Voter Fund falsely attacks Bush, who comes back with a misleading ad about Kerry.


An Aug 19 ad in Nevada from the liberal Democratic group MoveOn.org Voter Fund attacks Bush for breaking a promise he never made, falsely claiming Bush vowed to veto legislation making Yucca Mountain a nuclear dump. Actually, all Bush promised was to veto temporary storage of nuclear waste in the state, pending final safety studies for permanent storage which he later approved.

Bush-Cheney ’04 in turn attacked Kerry Aug. 23 with a misleading ad claiming the senator long supported a Yucca Mountain disposal site before promising recently do all he can to block it if elected. In fact, Kerry voted against singling out Yucca Mountain as a storage site as early as 1987.


The Yucca Mountain issue might have changed history. Four years ago neither Bush nor Gore promised to block the Yucca Mountain site — 100 miles outside Las Vegas — as a permanent repository for used nuclear fuel rods, which are intensely radioactive.

MoveOn.org Voter Fund
Ad: “Waste”

Announcer: It’s coming to Nevada… radioactive waste headed for Yucca Mountain. Why? Because in 2000, George Bush misled Nevada. That’s right. After promising Governor Guinn he’d veto legislation making Yucca Mountain a nuclear dump Geoge Bush personally approved the disposal of radioactive waste in Nevada.

John Kerry’s fighting to stop Yucca Mountain.

MoveOn.org Voter Fund is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Gore now has reason regret not catering more strongly to Nevada voters’ dislike for the nuclear dump. He lost Nevada by 46 percent to Bush’s 50 percent. Had just under 11,000 of those Bush votes gone to Gore instead, the Democrat would have won the state’s four electoral votes — and the presidency — even without Florida.

This time John Kerry is promising what Gore didn’t — to keep nuclear waste out. It’s a clear difference between the candidates: Bush signed legislation July 23, 2002, clearing the way for the Department of Energy to go forward with the Yucca project despite objection from the state’s governor, after earlier urging Congress to clear the way.

Bush’s Non-Promise

The ad says those actions by Bush broke a promise to “veto legislation making Yucca Mountain a nuclear dump,” but that’s false. Bush never made such a promise. What he said during the 2000 campaign, in a letter to Nevada’s Gov. Kenny Guinn, is this:

Bush (letter to Gov. Guinn, September, 2000): The Department of Energy (DoE) has not completed its impact study of Yucca Mountain and important questions of environmental protection and safety have not yet been answered. Therefore, I would veto legislation that would provide for the temporary storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. (emphasis added).

That of course is not a promise to veto legislation making Yucca Mountain a permanent dump, and that was clear at the time. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported:

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sept. 30, 2000): On the question of permanent storage, the two presidential candidates have both said science should determine if the permanent repository is suitable. Neither has suggested they would block the permanent site if scientists say it is safe.

And that’s what Bush reiterated in the letter which the ad mischaracterizes. The ad show the words, “Dear Kenny, I would veto legislation…” scrawled across the screen, but the ad leaves out Bush’s crucial qualifier:

Bush (letter to Gov. Guinn, September, 2000): As I’ve said before, I believe the best science must prevail in the designation that would send nuclear waste to any proposed site — either on a permanent or temporary basis — unless it has been deemed scientifically safe.

The Review-Journal report noted that language, and said “That appears to suggest that if the environmental and safety questions were addressed to his satisfaction, Bush would approve such a bill” for permanent storage, which is exactly what Bush did two years later.

Of course, what constitutes “scientifically safe” is a matter of hotly debated opinion. Many Nevada residents maintain that the site isn’t safe, and the matter is currently tied up in a court dispute over whether sufficiently strict standards are being applied. Still, Bush made clear he considered the safety issue settled when he approved the site July 23, 2002. At that time White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said:

Fleischer (July 23, 2002): The successful completion of the Yucca Mountain project will ensure our nation has a safe and secure underground facility that will store nuclear waste in a manner that protects our environment and our citizens.

The measure Bush signed that day was a joint resolution passed overwhelmingly by the House (H.J. Res. 87) and Senate (S.J. Res. 34). The House passed the resolution with a bipartisan margin of 306-117. The Senate passed the resolution by a voice vote, after a key procedural measure was approved 60-39.

Radioactive Waste Coming?

The ad says radioactive waste “is coming to Yucca Mountain” and shows trucks rolling, but the fact is that it would be years before any radioactive waste in actually transported, even if all legal hurdles are cleared.

The bill Bush signed in 2002 gave the green light for the Department of Energy (DoE) to apply for a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to start construction of permanent facilities at Yucca Mountain. Now, two years later, the DoE says it will apply by December. By law, the NRC must approve or disapprove the application in no more than 4 years, and Sue Gagner, an NRC spokesperson, said it would take at least 3.

Once the DoE completes construction, however, the agency would still need to obtain an additional operating license before transport of the waste could begin. The site recommendation sent by DoE Secretary Spencer Abraham to Bush in 2002 set the total timeline at a minimum of 8 years before Yucca Mountain becomes operational.

A Kerry Flip-Flop?

The Bush campaign responded with an ad giving the false impression that Kerry was a long-time, strong supporter of Yucca Mountain before turning against it. In fact, though Kerry’s record is indeed somewhat mixed, he cast a clear vote against singling out Yucca Mountain as early as 1987 and the Bush ad cites his votes selectively and in a misleading way.

Bush-Cheney ’04 Ad:
“Kerry’s Yucca”

Bush: I’m George W. Bush, and I approve this message.

Announcer: Listening to John Kerry, you’d think he’d been against Yucca Mountain his entire career. But Kerry voted to establish the nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain. Kerry voted 7 times to make it easier to dump waste at Yucca and said, “A repository for nuclear waste could be established there and be made functional by 2015.” He even tried to speed shipment of nuclear waste from Massachusetts to Yucca. There’s what Kerry says and then there’s what Kerry does…

The ad claims Kerry “voted to establish the nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain,” a reference to a huge 1987 budget bill that included a provision singling out Yucca Mountain as the only site to get further study as a nuclear waste facility. At the time, sites in Texas and Washington state were under study as well. The legislation has come to be known as the “screw Nevada” bill. Kerry did vote for the budget measure, and Nevada’s senators opposed it because of that one provision. The budget measure was adopted 61-28 on Dec. 21, 1987. However, it was not a straight up-or-down vote on Yucca Mountain. The key vote came more than a month earlier, on Nov. 18.

The “screw Nevada” provision was then part of an energy appropriations bill, and Kerry voted to remove it. That was the key vote on Yucca Mountain, and Kerry joined Nevada’s two senators in voting “aye.” The measure was defeated 34-61. As The Associated Press reported at the time, “That was the last of several attempts, including a short-lived filibuster, to scuttle the plan” to make Yucca Mountain the only site under study.

The Bush ad also says Kerry has “voted 7 times to make it easier to dump waste at Yucca,” and the campaign cites seven votes in which Kerry voted one way while Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid, a die-hard Yucca opponent, voted the other. It is true that Kerry has sometimes voted for measures that included provisions for a nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain, including the 1987 budget bill. But  The Associated Press has reported, “Each time Kerry has faced the simple choice of voting whether or not to send waste to Yucca Mountain, he has voted against it.”

That was true in 2002, when Kerry voted against the Senate version of the Yucca Mountain measure that Bush signed. And it was true two years earlier, when Kerry voted in May 2000 against override of President Clinton’s veto of a bill that would have provided for temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel rods in Nevada. The veto was sustained.

At one point the Bush ad quotes from a letter that Kerry sent in 1996 stating that a nuclear dump could be “made functional by 2015.” Not mentioned in the ad is that the letter urged the Clinton administration to follow congressional directives to provide more money for testing the Yucca facility. The ad also says Kerry “tried to speed shipment of nuclear waste from Massachusetts to Yucca,” which refers to a 1999 letter signed by the four senators from Massachusetts and Connecticut urging “an accelerated waste acceptance schedule” for waste from de-commissioned nuclear plants such as those in their two states. “This provision would give high priority to spent fuel currently stored at commercial reactor sites undergoing decommissioning,” the letter said. However, both of those letters were sent at a time when Congress had already fixed on Yucca Mountain as the only site being considered for nuclear waste storage, despite Kerry’s objection.



Watch Bush-Cheney ’04 Ad: “Kerry’s Yucca”


Supporting Documents

View Kerry’s 1996 letter urging more funds to study Yucca Mountain

View Kerry’s 1999 letter urging legislation providing for “accelerated waste acceptance schedule” for fuel from decommissioned nuclear plants


Federal Election Commission, “2000  OFFICIAL PRESIDENTIAL GENERAL ELECTION RESULTS” Accessed 23 Aug 2004.

“President Signs Yucca Mountain Bill; Statement by the Press Secretary,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, News Release 23 July 2002.

George W. Bush, “Presidential Letter to Congress: Text of a Letter from the President to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate,” 15 Feb 2002.

Jane Ann Morrison, “Republicans hail Bush letter  on nuclear waste; Guinn says presidential candidates’ positions on issue now equal, but Democrats disagree,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, 30 Sept 2000.

Cy Ryan, “ Bush Says He’d Veto Yucca as Interim Site ,” Las Vegas Sun, 29 Sept. 2000.

Ari Fleischer, “President Signs Yucca Mountain Bill ,” 23 July 2002.

Lee Byrd, “Senate Approves Major Overhaul Of Program For Dumping Nuclear Wastes,” The Associated Press 18 Nov 1987.

U.S. House of Representatives, 107th Congress, 2nd Session, H.J. Res. 87, Proposed 11 April 2002.

U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 107th Congress – 2nd Session On the Motion to Proceed (Motion to Proceed to Consider S.J. Res. 34 ) Record Vote Number: 167  9 July 2002

U.S. House of Representatives Roll Call Votes 107th Congress – 2nd Session H.J. Res. 87,  Vote #133 , 8 May 2002.

U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 106th Congress – 2nd Session, On Overriding the Veto (Shall The Bill S. 1287 Pass, Over The Objections Of The President ) Veto sustained Vote #88, 2 May 2000.

Recommendation by the Secretary of Energy Regarding the Suitability of the Yucca Mountain Site for a Repository Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 ,” Feb. 2002.

John Kerry, ” Candidate Says Yucca a Non-Starter If He’s Elected ,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, 16 May 2004.

“Face-to-Face with John Ralston,” KLAS-TV, 17 May 2004.