August 7, 2008

McCain Calls Nuclear Power ‘Vital’ 45 New Reactors Part of Energy Plan

By Mary Ann Giordano and Larry Rohter

Matthew Wald contributed reporting from Washington.


Senator John McCain toured a nuclear power plant in Michigan on Tuesday to highlight his support for the construction of 45 new nuclear power generators by 2030, a position that he said distinguished him from his Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama.

McCain portrayed his support of nuclear energy as part of an "all-of-the-above" approach to addressing the nation's energy needs at a time of $4-a-gallon gasoline. He called it "safe, efficient, inexpensive and obviously a vital ingredient in the future of the economy of our nation and in our mission to eliminate over time our dependence on foreign oil."

"If we really want to enable new technologies tomorrow like plug- in electric cars, we need electricity to plug into," he said in a statement after touring the Fermi 2 nuclear plant, with its twin cooling towers in the background. "We need to do all this and more."

Both McCain and Obama, the presumptive presidential nominees, see expanded use of nuclear energy as a way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil, although Obama has cautioned that the government must first consider issues like the disposal of nuclear waste and the security of nuclear materials.

Even before McCain left South Dakota, where he campaigned at the freewheeling Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on Monday night, and headed to the plant in Michigan, Obama's campaign had put out a statement rebuffing what it called McCain's misrepresentation of Obama's position on nuclear power.

"Barack Obama supports safe and secure nuclear energy," Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. "Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our noncarbon- generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option. However, before an expansion of nuclear power is considered, Obama thinks key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage and proliferation."

Those concerns, as well as the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, and the ability to generate electricity cheaply in other ways, left the reactor- construction business moribund for decades. More than 100 reactor orders were canceled in the 1970s, including all those ordered after 1973, and billions of dollars of work was abandoned.

But market conditions have improved as demand for power has risen and the price of natural gas, a competing fuel, has jumped. Lately some environmental groups that had been critical of nuclear power have embraced it, seeing the technology as a way to meet the nation's growing energy demands without contributing more heat- trapping gases.

In addressing the nation's energy demands, Obama has focused on alternative energy sources like wind and solar, as well as conservation, which would apparently also be the main beneficiaries of the decadelong $150 billion government investment effort he promises if elected. He barely mentions nuclear power, usually just alluding to it in a sentence here or there.

"I think we do have to look at nuclear," he said in an interview this spring on "Meet the Press,""and what we've got to figure out is can we store the material properly? Can we make sure that they're secure? Can we deal with the expense?"

In his appearance at the nuclear plant, McCain expressed none of those doubts or concerns, asserting in his statement that the construction of the 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 would create 700,000 jobs, a figure that many experts find to be inflated. He also said his experience serving on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise had convinced him of the safety of nuclear power.

McCain took no questions and limited his appearance to his statement and a tour of the plant with a single reporter and a photographer, part of a recent campaign strategy to limit his availability to the news media.

During the tour, while standing in the center of the plant's control room, surrounded by elaborate panels and consoles crammed with switches and green and red lights, he asked several questions related to the plant's safety.

The plant has had a troubled history, with its original generating station, Fermi 1, which opened in 1957, suffering a partial fuel meltdown on Oct. 5, 1966. No outside contamination occurred, but Fermi 1 was taken off line in 1972 and decommissioned in 1975.

Fermi 2, owned by DTE Energy, opened in January 1988.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it expects to receive applications by the end of 2010 to build 34 nuclear plants, although only a handful are likely to be finished in the next decade.

To try to jump-start the nuclear construction business, Congress in 2005 gave the industry three incentives. It provided loan guarantees of up to $18.5 billion, which would cover up to 80 percent of the value of a new reactor; it offered financial credits for producing electricity; and it offered a form of insurance for regulatory delays.

Still, the so-called nuclear renaissance is moving slowly. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was signed by President George W. Bush on Aug. 8 of that year and has yet to produce a plant order.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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