Not-so-bright ideas

It’s all energy, all the time for Barack Obama and John McCain, who lately have talked about little else than their respective energy plans. Unfortunately, both blueprints could use some work. Obama is so eager to pander to voters angry about high gas prices that he has abandoned his own green principles by opening the door to more offshore drilling and calling for more oil production from domestic shale. Yet that’s nothing compared with McCain, whose plan to boost nuclear power is an insult to voters’ intelligence.

On Tuesday, the day after Obama delivered a major address on energy in Lansing, Mich., McCain appeared at a nuclear reactor on the shores of Lake Erie to talk up the importance of nuclear power. He faulted Obama for failing to embrace it and reiterated his promise to build 45 nuclear plants by 2030.

McCain claims that nuclear power is clean, safe and cheap, but it is none of the above. Nuclear waste remains hazardous for millenniums, and this country still hasn’t developed a practical way to store it. The risk of meltdowns or other serious accidents remains high, there is a small but persistent threat of nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists, and the cost of building new plants, even though it’s subsidized by the federal government, is prohibitive.

McCain can be forgiven for ignoring or downplaying such issues; they’re mostly technical challenges that could someday be resolved. He can’t be forgiven for pretending that his goal of building 45 plants in 22 years is practical, nor that it would make any difference if it were.


The great majority of the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States are nearing the end of their useful lives; by McCain’s 2030 deadline, roughly half may have to be decommissioned. So even if it were possible to build so many plants so quickly, there’s a good chance they still wouldn’t replace those that would be closed -- meaning the amount of energy the U.S. derives from nuclear power wouldn’t change. And it is extraordinarily unlikely that McCain’s goal could be met. Because of the regulatory and community hurdles that must be overcome to build a plant, experts think it would take more than a decade from planning to completion for any new project. Add to that the fact that even though investors have applied for 10 licenses for new plants since September 2007, no U.S. utility has dared to build one since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979.

Before gas prices started soaring and McCain emerged as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, his ideas on energy sounded very much like Obama’s, focusing on renewable power, carbon controls and efficiency. Campaign consultants doubtless deemed that too crunchy-granola for the GOP base, so he has taken to tossing it red meat by talking up nuclear power and increased offshore oil drilling. But misleading the public about nuclear energy will not serve the country, or his campaign, well.