WASHINGTON – John McCain’s visit to a Michigan nuclear plant Tuesday revives a debate over the promise and safety of nuclear energy.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee emphasized the promise, saying his plan to build 45 0nuclear plants by 2030 would help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and cut greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
“If we want to enable the technologies of tomorrow like plug-in electric cars, we need electricity to plug into,” McCain said after touring a nuclear plant about 30 miles south of Detroit.
Democrat Barack Obama is more cautious. While he says nuclear power should be part of U.S. energy plans, Obama said Tuesday the nation must find “safer ways to use nuclear power and store nuclear waste.” He said the focus should be on finding new energy sources.
A summer of record gas prices and tensions with oil-rich areas such as the Middle East, Venezuela and Russia has combined to make energy a top issue in the White House race.
The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 changed the political dynamics of nuclear power. No new plants have been approved since 1979, but those in development at the time gradually came online, said Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group.
There were 69 commercial reactors in the U.S. three decades ago, according to the institute, and today there are 104. Nuclear power produces 19 percent of the nation’s electricity – a point McCain frequently makes on the campaign trail. Applications are pending for 18 plants.
John Keeley, a spokesman for the institute, said it is a lengthy process to get plants licensed and built. “We’re looking at an eight-to-nine-year time frame,” Keeley said.
In making the case for nuclear power, McCain often cites France’s reliance on such energy and plans by China, India and Russia to boost their capacity.
The Democratic National Committee and the League of Conservation Voters both noted that the Enrico Fermi nuclear plant that McCain visited had replaced one that had a partial meltdown in 1966. An abnormal level of radiation was not released at the time, and no one was injured, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Obama has criticized McCain for not having a plan to dispose of nuclear waste – other than to deposit it at the proposed Yucca Mountain storage site in Nevada, which the Democrat opposes. McCain, who voted for the site in 2002, has said he supports the facility about 90 miles from Las Vegas as long as it can meet federal environmental standards.
McCain’s plan for nuclear power, including eventual construction of 100 new facilities, is just one idea in a package that also calls for more oil drilling and tax breaks to developers of wind, solar and other alternative energy sources.
Obama’s energy plan includes a tax on companies that make “windfall profits” from soaring oil prices, drilling on stockpiled oil leases and $150 billion to step up research on biofuels and other forms of “clean” energy.