Republican presidential candidate John McCain still supports putting America’s nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, but he has begun to doubt whether it will ever happen and is stressing that he would make the proposed repository meet environmental and safety standards.
"I’m not saying open Yucca Mountain without regard to environmental requirements, et cetera, et cetera — all the things that have to be done in order to ensure safety, security, environmental, all those kinds of things," he said Wednesday at his campaign headquarters in Henderson. "That may never happen."
McCain said of the project, "It’s not clear whether it ever will meet the environmental requirements."
Asked if he would make decisions about Yucca based on sound science, he said, "Absolutely, absolutely. You have to go through the process. In the past history of this country, we have made too many errors that have damaged our environment and people’s lives."
Asked if he could still be considered in favor of the project considering this qualification, McCain said, "Yes. Yes, as long as it meets those requirements that are being addressed, both in and out of court."
McCain was in Southern Nevada Wednesday to talk about energy, presenting a collection of proposals that includes a major expansion of nuclear power.
For Nevadans, that raises the question of what would be done with the resulting nuclear waste. The state’s official position is against the proposed repository 100 miles from Las Vegas.
The Arizona senator historically has supported storing radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain; but as he has campaigned in Nevada, a crucial swing state, he has struck more conciliatory notes. He said Wednesday that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel might be the answer.
"I think we have to reprocess; I really do," he said. "I think that’s one of the only ways out. I’m not a total expert on Yucca Mountain. My understanding is that the first priority to go to Yucca Mountain, if it ever opened … it will be the defense spent nuclear fuel.
"So what do you do with all the spent nuclear fuel that’s sitting around nuclear power plants all over America?"
McCain pointed to Europe, where spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed, a procedure that dramatically reduces the amount of radioactive material.
"The amount of waste that remains after reprocessing is very small," he said. "It’s not new science. The French are doing it as we speak. Europeans are doing it as we speak. Nuclear power plants are a vital part of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. People who are against nuclear power, my question is, what about what can give our children a damaged planet, and that’s greenhouse gas emissions? You have to have, in my view, nuclear power be part of the equation, if you’re going to seriously address the greenhouse gas emissions issue."
At the same time as he expressed caution about proceeding with Yucca Mountain, McCain expressed impatience with the current state of affairs on energy.
"I am open to any ideas that will work," he said. "My urgent request is, let’s do it. Let’s stop getting hung up on everything. … We’ve been having the same argument for the last 30 years."
Earlier Wednesday, speaking at UNLV, McCain stuck to outlining his proposals and did not mention his Democratic opponent, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who visited Las Vegas on Tuesday.
Obama’s energy talk had centered around criticism of McCain, whose plans he derided as political gimmickry.
"It’s interesting that he opposes everything," McCain said. "He opposes nuclear. He opposes reprocessing. He opposes storage. He opposes everything. It seems to me Doctor No wants everything status quo. No one in America believes that the status quo is satisfactory."
McCain’s 25-minute speech at the university focused on the urgency of energy security, which he described as a central question that too often is politicized rather than addressed.
"As a country, we find ourselves caught between the rock of slower growth and the hard place of inflation, all of this in large part because the price of oil is too high, the supply of oil is too uncertain and we depend on oil too much," he said. "Energy security is a vital question, because it concerns America’s most fundamental interests and, above all, the safety of our citizens from the violence of the world."
The oil trade benefits repressive regimes and creates terrorist targets in the form of pipelines and refineries, he said, while fossil fuel emissions lead to global warming. Meanwhile, the federal government for decades has not addressed the issue, he said.
"Even now, our energy debates carry the echoes of 10, 20 or even 30 years ago," he said. "We hear the same calls for new energy taxes instead of new energy production. We’re offered the same agenda of inaction — that long recitation of things we cannot do, energy we cannot produce, refineries we cannot build, plants we cannot approve, coal we cannot use, technologies we cannot master. The timid litany of limitations goes on and on, and it says more about the culture of Washington than about the character of America."
McCain said he would allow more domestic oil drilling and push for tighter regulation of speculation in the oil market.
He called for 45 new nuclear reactors by the year 2030 and billions of dollars for research into ways to get electricity from coal without polluting.
McCain also advocated alternative fuels for cars and reiterated his plan to offer a $300 million prize to the developer of a revolutionary new car battery.
He called for federal incentives for alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal.
The plan might not bring "instant relief," he said.
"In the mission of energy security, some tasks are the work of decades and some are the work of years, and it will take all the resolve of which we are capable. I can promise you this: Unless we begin this mission now, nothing will change at all except for the worse. When we succeed in the hard reform ahead, our children will live in a more prosperous country and a more peaceful world."
Democrats criticized McCain’s plan Wednesday, focusing on his support for Yucca Mountain. Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid said with McCain and Obama visiting the state on consecutive days, Nevadans could easily compare the two.
"While Senator McCain believes that Nevada is a wasteland, Senator Obama has a plan that will develop the tremendous potential we have here for alternative energy sources," Reid said in a conference call with reporters.
In between the speech at UNLV and the afternoon visit to headquarters, where he greeted campaign volunteers, McCain stopped by the Southern Highlands development for two fundraisers, which raised nearly $2 million.
Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball@ reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.RELATED STORY Protesters turn up heat on McCain ON THE WEB: McCain slide show