LAS VEGAS - The leading Democratic presidential candidates are united on the government's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage plan: They'd scrap it.
Their vigorous opposition to the project reflects Nevada's importance as one of a handful of states that will lead off voting in January for the Democratic and Republican nominations. Few local issues are as unpopular with Nevadans as the waste dump.
The Democrats have just one problem - their records keep getting in the way. Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has created suspicion because she's refused to rule out expansion of nuclear power as a solution to the nation's energy woes and has received campaign contributions from the nuclear industry. Barack Obama, whose home state of Illinois has more nuclear plants than any other, also has received substantial contributions from the industry and wants to leave nuclear power on the table.
John Edwards, when he was a North Carolina senator, voted twice to open the dump and once against it. Bill Richardson once ran the Energy Department, which is building the dump, and voted for it when he was a New Mexico congressman.
The dump, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was supposed to open in 1998, but scientific controversies, lawsuits and money shortages have delayed it. Its opening is now projected for no earlier than 2020 and its cost has climbed to an estimated $77 billion.
The issue has been almost invisible on the Republican side of the race despite GOP plans to hold their presidential caucuses in Nevada on Jan. 19, the same day as Democrats.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has not given a clear answer on his position, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has said he will not rule out continuing work at Yucca Mountain, and Arizona Sen. John McCain has stuck to his support for the dump. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson voted in favor of the project while in Congress, but has not commented recently.
The GOP has generally been more willing than Democrats to increase the nation's share of electricity generated from nuclear power. The lack of a waste disposal site is a key obstacle to expansion.
Here's a look at the top Democrats' records on Yucca Mountain:
The New York senator recently used her seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee to call the first oversight hearing on the dump since Democrats took control of Congress.
Clinton voted against a 2002 attempt to override Nevada's rejection of the facility. She's promised to cut funding for the project if elected president.
At a South Carolina town hall in February, Clinton expressed concerns about waste disposal but noted that "nuclear power has to be a part of our energy solution."
Clinton has accepted thousands in contributions from the nuclear industry, including nearly $80,000 in this election from employees and a PAC of NRG Energy Inc., the first company to file an application for a new nuclear power plant in the United States since before the Three Mile Island accident.
Critics see a contradiction in Clinton's opposition to a facility to store nuclear waste, but not to expansion of nuclear power, which would generate more waste.
He has said he's opposed to Yucca Mountain, and has called for the facility's closure.
Illinois' nuclear industry, which has thousands of tons of waste at its facilities awaiting opening of Yucca Mountain, has long backed Obama. Executives and employees of Exelon Corp., the Chicago-based energy giant and nuclear plant operator, have contributed more than $200,000 to Obama campaigns since 2004, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com.
Obama has said he believes nuclear energy should remain on the table.
Obama also raised concerns when he chose Federico Pena, who was energy secretary before Richardson, as his surrogate on the issue. At his departure from the Energy Department, Pena took credit for "meeting milestones" toward opening the site.
The former 2004 vice presidential nominee's has a mixed record on the issue.
After he was selected as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's running mate, Edwards announced he would defer to Kerry's anti-Yucca position and promised Nevada Sen. Harry Reid he would fight the project.
The former North Carolina senator has said he was trying to protect his constituents, who didn't want to store nuclear waste in their state, when he voted in favor of the project.
Edwards now says faulty science was used to support the Yucca Mountain project, and he doesn't believe nuclear energy is a safe energy source.
Richardson, the New Mexico governor, has the most tangled record on nuclear waste disposal.
As a New Mexico congressman, he voted in favor of the 1987 measure that designated Yucca Mountain as the sole dump site to be studied by the federal government.
Richardson had not raised the issue on the stump or in statements until it was cited in news stories. He now says he's always opposed the project, which he believes would be unsafe.
"Nevada should say no, I've always said no," Richardson told reporters during an early campaign stop in the state.
Richardson explains his House vote as support for other funding items in the bill. He has said he voted against the project "five or six" other times, though his campaign could cite only two.
Richardson's claims of constant opposition also are not supported by his tenure as head of the Department of Energy, although he did lobby against efforts to open a temporary waste storage site in Nevada.
On the Net:
Yucca Mountain Project: http://www.ymp.gov
Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects: http://www.state.nv.us/nucwaste
U.S. Geological Survey: http://water.usgs.gov/ympb/
© 2007 Associated Press