Nuclear Power A Thorny Issue For Candidates Republican John McCain says he supports nuclear power. Democrat Barack Obama says it shouldn't be taken off the table. But the issue is a delicate one, and both presidential candidates have chosen their words with care.

Nuclear Power A Thorny Issue For Candidates

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Barack Obama is visiting Iraq this week. But when he's done, he returns to a presidential campaign that may be decided largely on the economy, which may be decided by energy - which is our subject this morning.

AMOS: In a moment, we'll hear about competing energy proposals in Congress. We begin with a subject that the candidates have approached carefully, and that's nuclear power. Both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain see nuclear power as a way of combating climate change. You'll learn some of the political difficulties by the way they talk about it.

Here's NPR's David Kestenbaum.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: When John McCain was a Navy pilot, he landed on aircraft carriers - floating cities often powered by nuclear reactors. Today, McCain calls nuclear one of the cleanest, safest and most reliable energy sources on Earth, and a powerful tool in the fight against global warming.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): We have, in this country, 104 nuclear reactors generating about 20 percent of our electricity. These reactors alone spare the atmosphere from about 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released every year. That's the annual equivalent of nearly all emissions from all the cars we drive in America.

KESTENBAUM: McCain's enthusiasm for nuclear has put him in unusual territory for a Republican: praising the French, who generate 80 percent of their power from nuclear.

Senator Obama's position is also somewhat unusual for a Democrat. He thinks nuclear power might be a good idea. The question came up during an early Democratic primary debate. Senator John Edwards went first, saying he did not favor nuclear power. Then came Obama.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I actually think that we should explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix. There are no silver bullets to this issue. We've got to develop…

KESTENBAUM: But that's all he said. Obama quickly pivoted to solar power, a much safer topic.

Nuclear power is not part of his stump speech. When asked about his position early on by a New Hampshire newspaper, the Keane Sentinel, he said he was open to the idea if certain problems can be solved. And it was a long if.

Sen. OBAMA: If we can make it safe, we know how to store it, we can make sure that it's not vulnerable to terrorist attack, it's not enhancing proliferation - right? I mean, there are a whole set of questions. And they may not be solvable. And if they're not solvable, then I don't want to invest in it. But if they are solvable, why not? I don't think there's anything that we inevitably dislike about nuclear power. We just dislike the fact that it might blow up and irradiate us and kill us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: That's the problem.

KESTENBAUM: It's a delicate position for Obama, and he's since polished his response to that question. Obama's home, Illinois, has more reactors than any state in the country. And he has some ties to the company that operates those reactors.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, employees at Exelon have given him $180,000 in campaign contributions. Two spokespeople for the company denied requests for an interview, saying a chairman of an electricity distribution company it owns had run an Obama fundraising event.

And Obama seems happy to keep his distance as well. Listen to this attack on John McCain. Obama had just finished criticizing him for wanting to open up land for oil drilling.

Sen. OBAMA: It makes about much sense as his proposal to build 45 new nuclear reactors without a plan to store the waste someplace other than - guess where -right here in Nevada, at Yucca Mountain.

KESTENBAUM: Obama, like other Democratic presidential candidates before him, says he's opposed to sending the waste to Nevada.

The waste issue even seems to have gotten to John McCain. He voted to send waste to Yucca Mountain, but on the campaign trail, McCain seems to be softening his stand. He's proposing building an international repository, primarily to keep used reactor fuel out of the wrong hands, but maybe with a second purpose.

Sen. MCCAIN: It's even possible that such an international center could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Professor ERIC HERZIK (Chair, Political Science Department, University of Nevada, Reno): It's kind of interesting to see what McCain has done.

KESTENBAUM: This is Eric Herzik, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Prof. HERZIK: His voting record is very clear. He has backed the Yucca Mountain repository and made no apologies for it until about two months ago - came into Nevada and gave this mixed signal of, well, maybe Yucca Mountain won't be needed if we can find an alternative.

KESTENBAUM: Herzik has studied the politics of nuclear energy for 20 years. And he says whoever is elected won't be able to just talk their way out of the nuclear waste problem.

Prof. HERZIK: Finding the site is the biggest problem. And so to say, well, we'll just find some magic beans and plant them in the ground and a repository site will grow where everybody wants it, we've never been able to find that.

KESTENBAUM: The irony is that for all the trouble nuclear power and waste give the candidates, Herzik says there's little evidence it actually affects how people vote for president. He and his colleagues have done some polling, and even in Nevada, when voters are asked to rank nuclear waste with other issues, it comes out at the bottom of the list.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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