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Published: Sunday, 8/22/2004

Kerry's mistake

It was never going to be easy to win approval for a national repository for nuclear waste, but the issue seemed settled when Congress voted in 2002 to go with Yucca Mountain in Nevada and President Bush supported the idea. But now Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry threatens to overthrow this hard-won agreement if he is elected.

It may be good politics for Mr. Kerry, but what he promises is bad public policy.

Although environmental concerns seem to drive some Americans to a reflexively anti-nuclear stand, anybody thoughtfully worried about fossil fuels and global warming can appreciate that nuclear power has its place in energy policy. There are dangers, of course, but they can be successfully mitigated.

What is unacceptable is to allow nuclear waste to be stored at individual plants permanently in 31 states; indeed, in an age of terrorism fears it is absolute folly. With the industry producing about 2,000 tons of commercial waste a year, it is simply not a sensible plan for the future to leave it on site. The waste can be moved safely and the job needs to be done.

Those truths are behind the political consensus that emerged on Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, after years of discussion. The site has been studied almost to death and the prevailing scientific verdict is that it would make the best site for a permanent nuclear waste site.

Now Mr. Kerry promises to block Yucca Mountain as the repository and, if he succeeds, this part of the nation's energy policy will be back to square one.

Not surprisingly, this is a highly popular stand in Nevada, but critics can fairly say, as with so much with Sen. Kerry, he has not always been on the same side. Although he voted against the 2002 legislation, other votes of his can be counted on the other side, including a major one in 1987 that the locals remember as the "Screw Nevada" bill.

Mr. Bush's own stand on this issue is suspect because residents of Nevada had understood him to be sympathetic to their concerns as a candidate, only to reverse himself once in office. Mr. Bush won Nevada narrowly in 2000, and the state's five electoral college votes this time could tip a close election.

Last week, Mr. Kerry told a town meeting in Nevada that this "is not just a Nevada issue." He got that much right. The approval of the Yucca Mountain site for which Mr. Kerry offers no alternative will make for sane national policy. To confound these plans at this stage is political mischief.

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