A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Waste Worries

Obama ad accuses McCain of nuclear NIMBY-ness in Nevada. We supply context.


Summary

An Obama ad running in Nevada accuses McCain of favoring storage of waste from nuclear power plants at Yucca Mountain, which is the government plan, while not wanting the waste shipped through his home state of Arizona. The ad uses a clip of a 2007 interview of McCain, in which he responds, "No, I would not," when asked whether he’d be comfortable with having the waste travel through Phoenix on its way to Nevada.

The McCain campaign objects, saying the Republican candidate’s response was taken out of context. McCain also said, "I think it can be made safe," and that waste is "not well protected" where it is now, and the Obama ad doesn’t include those statements. 

Analysis

The 30-second spot from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama makes the point that his Republican rival John McCain supports using Yucca Mountain as a site for the disposal of nuclear waste and spent fuel. That’s certainly true, and, as the ad notes, McCain voted for a 2002 Senate resolution to proceed with development of the repository.

So far, so good. But things get tricky when the ad flashes to a clip from an interview McCain did with Nevada television talk show host Sam Shad in May 2007.

Shad: Would you be comfortable with nuclear waste coming through Arizona on its way, you know going through Phoenix, on its way to Yucca Mountain?

McCain: No, I would not. No, I would not.

The clip ends quickly as the narrator says, "John McCain. For nuclear waste in Nevada, just not in his backyard."

 

[TET ]

Obama for America Ad: "Backyard"

Announcer: Imagine trucks hauling the nation’s nuclear waste on our highways to Yucca Mountain?

John McCain supports opening Yucca.

He’s not worried about nuclear waste in our state — only in Arizona.

Clip from May 2007 television interview:
Sam Shad (reporter)
: Would you be comfortable with nuclear waste coming through Arizona on its way, you know going through Phoenix, on its way to Yucca Mountain?

John McCain: No, I would not. No, I would not.

Narrator: John McCain. For nuclear waste in Nevada, just not in his backyard. Barack Obama opposes opening Yucca. He’ll protect our families.

Obama:
I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message. [/TET]

The ad might raise some questions for the inquiring viewer, such as, "How can it be that the guy who wants to build 45 nuclear power plants by 2030 is afraid of nuclear waste going through his state?"

The McCain camp’s objection is that the clip was cut short. McCain spokesman Brian Rogers points to McCain’s next sentence, "I think it can be made safe," and also to McCain’s warning, in the same breath, that it’s more dangerous to leave the nuclear waste where it is.

Here’s McCain’s full answer to Shad’s question:

McCain: No, I would not. No, I would not. I think it can be made safe. And again, we have two options here. What people forget is the option of leaving this waste in areas outside, maybe unprotected, or certainly not well protected all over America rather than having them in a safe and secure repository for it. I’d prefer not having the status quo and I think it’s also a national security issue. I think these areas would be ripe for terrorist attacks.

We find McCain’s response — even the full version — too ambiguous to allow us to judge the Obama ad misleading or not. When McCain said, "I think it can be made safe," he might have meant that he didn’t want radioactive waste being shipped through his state until more secure shipping methods were developed. Or perhaps he was returning to an earlier subject in the interview and meant that he’s convinced a secure repository can be constructed at Yucca Mountain. Or maybe he was referring to the whole package, including both the hauling and the storage of the deadly waste.

Just before Shad’s question and the answer above, McCain replied to a query from his host about the safety of using Yucca as a permanent waste site.

McCain: I’m concerned about the safety, but I do believe Yucca Mountain can be made safe, and I believe strongly in nuclear power, and I believe we have to have a waste repository, and I think Yucca Mountain is the place it can be made safe. I believe that it can.

We asked Sam Shad, who did the interview, what he thought McCain meant. Said Shad: "I don’t think he does want it shipped through his state, but he had to expand on that, since he’s in favor of nuclear power." And that’s where the confusion crept in. "He’s being asked a specific question that he doesn’t want to answer," Shad noted. "He’s a politician." Shad has asked the Obama campaign to take down the ad, saying its use of footage from his copyrighted show without his permission was improper. The campaign’s lawyers have refused, disagreeing with Shad’s legal analysis.

Had the Obama campaign used McCain’s full answer it still would have been justified in saying that McCain takes a not-in-my-backyard stance to the radioactive stuff and would rather have it shipped to Nevada. One of those places where waste now is stored is the Palo Verde 3 nuclear plant, just 55 miles from Phoenix. McCain’s argument is that it should be moved from his backyard, and that of many others, to supposedly less dangerous storage at Yucca Mountain. The project, though, is being fought by the state of Nevada, where it is deeply unpopular.

Ultimately, McCain’s own words are easily interpreted as saying he didn’t want nuclear waste shipped through his state, and nothing in his longer response dispels that impression. For its part, Obama’s campaign can be accused of pouncing on an unclear response from his opponent, but that’s politics. Whether the ad conveys a misleading portrayal of McCain, we leave to our readers to decide.

The ad, called "Backyard," is scheduled to run through the weekend in Nevada markets.

— by Viveca Novak

Sources

Ralston, Jon. "Obama on Yucca," lasvegassun.com, 13 Aug. 2008.

The Lexington Project, johnmccain.com, Web site accessed 13 Aug. 2008.

Shad, Sam. Interview with John McCain, Nevada NewsMakers, 7 May 2007.

"Poll finds Nevada voters strongly oppose Yucca,"The Associated Press, 28 Nov. 2007.