SPRINGFIELD, MO. — Sen. John McCain proposed Wednesday to dramatically increase America's commitment to nuclear power, calling for a crash program to build 45 reactors by 2030 and a long-term goal of building 100 such plants across the country.
On the second day of a campaign swing devoted to energy security, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee also committed to spending $2 billion a year for research and development "to make clean coal a reality" in an effort to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
McCain has long been a proponent of nuclear power. But his speech here included unabashed support for an energy source and technology that has been suspect in many communities since the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, the most serious commercial nuclear accident in U.S. history.
No nuclear power plant has been built in America in more than 30 years, and few U.S. companies have invested in the technology to build new plants. The nation draws about 20% of its electricity from 104 working commercial reactors, but many are nearing the end of the operating period allowed by their licenses.
"We will need to recover all the knowledge and skills that have been lost over three stagnant decades in a highly technical field," McCain told a forum at Missouri State University.
Missouri is considered a key battleground in the fall election, and the Arizona senator promised to return often to campaign in coming months. About two dozen antiwar protesters greeted his arrival here, and police escorted one youth from the auditorium after he loudly interrupted the speech.
With gasoline topping $4 a gallon, rising energy costs have surged to the forefront of the campaign. On Tuesday, McCain reversed his earlier position and endorsed drilling off America's coastlines, a position that angered the environmental groups he has courted for months.
President Bush said Wednesday that he would ask Congress to overturn a moratorium on offshore drilling. Gov. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina and Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, both Democrats, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a Republican, all publicly reaffirmed their opposition to lifting the drilling ban in their states.
America's aversion to nuclear-generated power sets it apart from much of the world. Western Europe and Japan depend heavily on nuclear power, and China, Russia, India and other rising economic powers have announced plans to build more than 100 nuclear facilities in coming years.
McCain did not explain how he would dispose of the radioactive waste from the dozens of new reactors he proposed, or how he would deal with the intense political passions the issue generates.
Nor did McCain say what steps he would take to accelerate the complex licensing and testing procedures needed to build and operate a nuclear plant, or how he would convince Wall Street to invest the estimated $5 billion to $10 billion required for each plant.
Under current rules, industry experts said, construction on a new plant could not begin for at least five years because of strict requirements involving emergency response planning, radiation protection, operator training and other procedures.
McCain also promised to provide $2 billion annually to support new research into clean coal technology. Coal is America's most abundant resource, but burning coal produces gases that scientists say contribute to global warming.
McCain used his speech to criticize his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who has called for a windfall profits tax on oil companies that have seen earnings soar from the recent surge in oil prices.
"For Sen. Obama, the solution to every problem and the answer to every challenge is a new tax," McCain said.
The Obama campaign replied that McCain's call this week for offshore drilling reflected "the same Washington double talk and old ideas that have failed our country and families for too long."