Republican John McCain on Wednesday held off opponents of a Nevada nuclear waste repository as he outlined ways to resolve the U.S. energy crisis.
The presidential candidate reiterated his call for building 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 — and a total of 100 at some point beyond that — during a speech at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Despite the waste they might generate, McCain said they are part of a comprehensive strategy to wean the United States off dependence on foreign oil.
McCain did not repeat his recent suggestion that the planned waste site at Nevada's Yucca Mountain may be rendered unnecessary if the world can agree on a location for a foreign repository. That comment in Texas drew cries of disbelief from critics who accused him of pandering to opponents of the nuclear dump after he has long supported it.
Aides say the policies conform with the Arizona senator's straight-talk reputation and contrast with opposition from Democratic rival Barack Obama, whom they have taken to calling "Dr. No."
"The experience of nations across Europe and Asia has shown that nuclear energy is efficient. It is safe, it is proven, and it is essential to America's energy future," McCain said during his speech. "We will need to recover all the knowledge and skills that have been lost over three stagnant decades in a highly technical field. As Nevadans are well aware, we will need to solve complex problems of moving and storing materials that will always need safeguarding."
It is unclear the degree to which the Yucca controversy moves votes in this fast-growing state. And Obama opened himself to similar criticism this week when he suggested nuclear power had to be explored as the U.S. copes with record high gasoline prices.
But McCain is fighting a Democratic tide in Nevada. In 2004, when President George W. Bush narrowly beat Democrat John Kerry in the presidential race, there were 358,000 Republicans in the state to 348,000 Democrats. There are now 438,000 Democrats and 388,000 Republicans in Nevada, thanks to intense voter registration drives before party caucuses this winter.
Republicans have also been plagued by state-party chaos and personal problems involving their nominal leader, Gov. Jim Gibbons. He filed for divorce earlier this month and has moved out of the governor's mansion. This week he apologized for sending 860 text messages through a state-owned cell phone to the estranged wife of a Reno doctor.
"This is the first time — really in about 20 years — that the Democrats have had this large registration lead over the Republicans," said Eric Herzik, a registered Republican who is a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. "It's reflective of better organization by the Democrats.'"
Democratic rival pounces
Obama himself derided McCain's energy plan, saying, "What Senator McCain has proposed so far is not a serious plan to solve the problem."
The Illinois senator has proposed investing $150 billion in alternative energy sources.
"What we need right now are not appealing but meaningless gimmicks designed to get politicians through the next election, gimmicks that offer no real relief to struggling motorists," Obama said during a news conference in Chicago. "What we need now is a serious national commitment to meet our responsibility to our country and the next generation."
McCain also has made solar power, as well as the development of electric cars and the use of alcohol-based fuels such as ethanol, part of his Lexington Project.
Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, a McCain supporter from Arizona, told reporters Wednesday, "Senator McCain's energy policy is a balanced policy" featuring expanded production, conservation and funding for developing alternative energy sources. Earlier this week, McCain proposed a $300 million prize for anyone who could develop a revolutionary battery pack for automobiles.
Obama branded the proposal a gimmick, despite using his Web site to suggest cash prizes for developing the next generation of biofuels.