06/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain, Obama & the Trojan Horse of Nuclear Energy

"Nuclear power is among the surest ways to gain a clean, abundant, and stable energy supply." Those words came from John McCain' this week in Houston as he laid out his energy policy.

This week in Detroit, Barack Obama talked about making nuclear power "safe," and his website position paper says, "It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table."

Neither of them has spotted the obvious:

Nuclear power is the Trojan horse of the energy debate.

Using the guise of concern over climate change, proponents ask us to re-consider our aversion to new nuclear power plants. But hidden beneath the claims of zero carbon emissions are the same old problems that have stopped any new nuclear plant from being commissioned since the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1979.

So let's talk about what's inside the Trojan Horse. (I quote from a fact sheet by Leslie Lai and Kristen Morrison.)

Proliferation Risk -- Plutonium is a man-made waste product of nuclear fission, which can be used either for fuel in nuclear power plants or for bombs. In the year 2000, an estimated 310 tons (620,000 pounds) of civilian, weapons-usable plutonium was produced. That's enough for 34,000 nuclear weapons of the same type used on Nagasaki.

Accident Risk - Remember 1986. Chernobyl. An explosion at that nuclear plant killed at least 30 people at the site. Thousands more died of cancer. The fallout reached Scotland.

Environmental Degradation -- The mining of uranium, its refining and enrichment, as well as the production of plutonium, all produce radioactive isotopes that contaminate the surrounding area, including the groundwater, air, land, plants, and equipment.

Nuclear Waste -- A typical reactor will generate 20 to 30 tons of high-level nuclear waste annually. There is no known way to safely dispose of this waste, which remains dangerously radioactive until it naturally decays. And that's a very long time. (The half-life of Plutonium-239, one particularly lethal component of nuclear waste, is 24,000 years.) Opposition to the proposed Yucca Mountain depository is strong and getting stronger. No one seems to want to store radioactive poison in their state. How many homeowners would like it trucked down the highway through their neighborhood or carried in a train down the local tracks?

Reprocessing Risk -- Though some countries reprocess nuclear waste (in essence, preparing it to send through the cycle again to create more energy), this process is banned in the U.S. due to increased proliferation risks, as the reprocessed materials can also be used for making bombs. Reprocessing is also not a solution because it just creates additional nuclear waste.

Now, I will state that as an employee of a 501 c 3 educational charity, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, I am not allowed to be partisan. And in fact, it is the stated policy of the Foundation to educate and advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons, but never to influence any campaign for elected office and never to ask any voter to do anything but vote their conscience.

However, education is vital for an informed voting public. And in a media environment that can accentuate the insignificant while leaving the issues unexplored, I see getting the basic policy facts out to voters as hugely important. Then citizens can vote their conscience.

So here are two key passages from the nuclear energy policies of our two candidates for President. I invite people to also check out these links to the complete energy policies of John McCain and Barack Obama.

John McCain ( speech on June 17, 2008): "As for nuclear energy -- a proven energy source that requires zero emissions -- we haven't built a new reactor in 31 years. In Europe and elsewhere, they have been expanding their use of nuclear energy. But we've waited so long that we've lost our domestic capability to even build these power plants. Nuclear power is among the surest ways to gain a clean, abundant, and stable energy supply, as other nations understand. One nation today has plans to build almost 50 new reactors by 2020. Another country plans to build 26 major nuclear stations. A third nation plans to build enough nuclear plants to meet one quarter of all the electricity needs of its people -- a population of more than a billion people. Those three countries are China, Russia, and India. And if they have the vision to set and carry out great goals in energy policy, then why don't we?... What is certain in energy policy is that we have learned a few clear lessons along the way. Somehow all of them seem to have escaped my opponent. He says that high oil prices are not the problem, but only that they rose too quickly. He's doesn't support new domestic production. He doesn't support new nuclear plants. He doesn't support more traditional use of coal, either."

Barack Obama (from his website "Plan to Make America a Global Energy Leader") "Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power from the table. However, there is no future for expanded nuclear without first addressing four key issues: public right-to-know, security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation. Barack Obama introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to establish guidelines for tracking, controlling and accounting for spent fuel at nuclear power plants.To prevent international nuclear material from falling into terrorist hands abroad, Obama worked closely with Sen. Dick Lugar (R - IN) to strengthen international efforts to identify and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction. As president, Obama will make safeguarding nuclear material both abroad and in the U.S. a top anti-terrorism priority. Obama will also lead federal efforts to look for a safe, long-term disposal solution based on objective, scientific analysis. In the meantime, Obama will develop requirements to ensure that the waste stored at current reactor sites is contained using the most advanced dry-cask storage technology available."

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is an educational charity that wants to encourage new US nuclear weapons policy. The Foundation is gathering one million signatures in a public education campaign, US Leadership for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World -- An Appeal to the Next President of the United States. The text of the Appeal sets out seven prudent steps -- such as de-alerting nuclear weapons -- that would make the world safer. The names will be delivered to the White House on Inauguration Day January 20, 2009.

People can read the US Leadership Appeal and sign on at