August 7, 2008—John McCain, who once was regarded as a top Republican ally of the environmental movement, has embraced an energy plan nearly identical to Vice President Dick Cheney’s National Energy Policy, which was drafted largely by industry executives and which pushed their desire for more oil drilling and nuclear power.
Now echoing those views, McCain declares repeatedly, “We need to drill here and we need to drill now.” Beyond opening up large tracts of protected coastal waters for oil exploration, McCain has called for a massive expansion of nuclear power.
"If I am elected president, I will set this nation on a course to building 45 new reactors by the year 2030, with the ultimate goal of 100 new plants to power the homes and factories and cities of America," McCain said during a campaign stop at a nuclear power plant in Michigan on Tuesday.
McCain’s current positions on offshore drilling and nuclear power dovetail with the policies of the Bush administration and mark a sharp break between major environmental groups and McCain, who previously used his environmental credentials as proof of his maverick ways.
As McCain abandoned his opposition to offshore drilling in June, Sierra Club political director Cathy Duvall said McCain “is using the environment as a way to portray himself as being different from George Bush. But the reality is that he isn’t.”
The Sierra Club, which is considered the oldest and largest environmental organization, has even begun running ads criticizing McCain and favoring Barack Obama.
With McCain's reversal on offshore drilling and his vocal support of nuclear energy, he now is pretty much in sync with Cheney’s secretive Energy Task Force of 2001, which called for more aggressive oil exploration, including in environmentally sensitive areas, and "the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States as a major component of our national energy policy."
Cheney’s energy plan, as it turned out, was largely written by executives of major energy companies, including Ken Lay and other top officials of the now defunct Enron Corp., which was particularly interested in energy price deregulation.
When Enron imploded in a wave of accounting scandals in late 2001 documents surfaced revealing the company’s behind-the-scenes role in drafting Cheney’s energy plan. It also was discovered that Enron was part of a scheme to create artificial electricity shortages in California in early 2001 to jack up rates.
The embarrassing revelations helped derail Cheney’s legislative package in Congress. But the Bush administration and the energy industry kept pressing for approval of various parts of the plan, such as expanded nuclear power by pitching it as a “green” energy option that doesn’t produce carbon dioxide.
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a powerful industry lobby, spent $680,000 during the first half of 2007 lobbying the White House, Congress, the Energy Department and other federal agencies, according to a disclosure form filed with the Senate's public records office.
Among the key lobbyists for nuclear power were the NEI’s Tom Loeffler, a former Republican congressman and Cheney's longtime friend, and Nancy Dorn, who worked as a congressional liaison for Cheney and later became a lobbyist for General Electric. The lobbying appears to have paid off as McCain is now making nuclear energy a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
McCain’s shifts on energy policies also came as he brought onboard advisers who had previously helped the Bush administration craft its energy agenda.
One of McCain’s advisers on energy policy has been David Conover, the former principal deputy assistant secretary office of policy and international affairs at the Energy Department. In 2005, Conover briefed members of Congress about the Bush administration’s plan for reviving the dormant nuclear power industry.
“Concerns over... climate change suggest a larger role for nuclear power as an energy supply choice,” Conover told a Senate Commerce subcommittee. “The Nuclear Power 2010 program is working with industry to demonstrate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission`s new [streamlined] licensing process.”
NP2010 became one of Cheney’s pet energy projects, as he pressed aggressively to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed up approval and licensing for nuclear plants.
Last September, Princeton-based NRG Energy Inc., having emerged from bankruptcy proceedings, became the first company in 30 years to submit an application to build two new General Electric-designed nuclear reactors at its Bay City, Texas, nuclear power plant facility.
Prior to NRG's application, there had not been a filing for a new nuclear power plant in the United States since before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown three decades ago. Government records showed that NRG's former president, David Peterson, traveled to Washington on two occasions in 2001 to work with Cheney's Energy Task Force.
Last October, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest public power provider, also filed an application with the NRC for a license to construct and operate two new nuclear power reactors in northern Alabama using General Electric's Westinghouse AP1000 reactor units.
The application was filed under the banner of NuStart Energy LLC, a consortium of electric utilities that joined together in 2004 to test the NRC's streamlined nuclear reactor licensing program. The licensing costs were paid for by the federal government under the Cheney-backed NP2010 program.
Members of the NuStart consortium include: Constellation Energy; Duke Energy; EDF International North America, the U.S. subsidiary of the French electric utility; Entergy Nuclear; Exelon Generation; Florida Power & Light Company; Progress Energy; South Carolina Electric & Gas; Southern Company; and Tennessee Valley Authority, Knoxville, Tennessee.
With the exception of Progress Energy, South Carolina Electric Gas & Light, and EDF International, all of these companies participated in meetings with Cheney's Energy Task Force and advised the Vice President on energy policy.
Additionally, these corporations have said publicly they intend to file applications for nuclear reactor licenses before the end of 2008, the deadline to receive billions of dollars in federal subsidies and tax credits. The NRC says it expects to receive as many as 21 applications to build 32 new reactors before the end of 2008, with most, if not all, expected to go online in 2015.
However, economists and scientists continue to question both the economic viability of nuclear power and the hazards from nuclear waste, which remains lethal for 100,000 years or more.
A 2003 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that even with volatile natural gas prices, the cost of producing electricity from nuclear power plants is still 20 percent higher than electricity produced from gas-fired power plants, and 60 percent more expensive than electricity produced from a coal-fired power plant.
Jon Block, nuclear energy and climate change project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said one of the continuing problems with constructing new nuclear facilities is how to dispose of nuclear waste.
"In over 50 years of operating experience, the nuclear industry still has not managed to solve the problems of safety, security, and disposal of highly dangerous radioactive waste," Block said. "Until that happens, we're much better off investing in safer, cleaner energy sources such as renewable wind, geothermal, tidal, and solar projects."
The Energy Department, the agency largely responsible for monitoring nuclear waste, submitted an application to the NRC to build a repository at Yucca Mountain, the site of a former nuclear testing ground in Nevada, where the agency has proposed burying the waste deep underground.
McCain supports the idea of storing waste in Yucca Mountain, a plan opposed by a majority of Nevadans, which could cost the Arizona Republican politically in a critical swing state.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama is more cautious about nuclear power.
Although Obama said he supports nuclear power as part of an overall package of U.S. energy plans, he said Tuesday the nation must find "safer ways to use nuclear power and store nuclear waste." Until that happens, Obama said he would not support licensing new nuclear power plants.
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This story was published on August 7, 2008.