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Uranium, a Contentious Element in the McCain Energy Plan

PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — After flying in to a small airport in Huntington, W. Va., Sen. John McCain boarded the Straight Talk Express bus, along with a local press pool, for the hour and 20-minute trip to Portsmouth. The campaign bus was trailed by two vans full of national press, who switched spots with the local press midway through the trip. Portsmouth, where McCain was to host a town hall meeting at the junior high school, is the first small town the campaign has visited since I hopped on almost two weeks ago.

The gymnasium was packed — standing room-only — and the crowd was enthusiastic. As we waited for the candidate to arrive, the audience clapped and chants of "John McCain" erupted. As predicted, this was a friendly crowd. This was particularly clear when McCain discussed his energy policy.

Here in Appalachian Ohio, McCain’s energy plan is a big hit. This is coal country, and Portsmouth is home to the Piketon Gaseous Diffusion Plant, where low-enriched uranium is produced as fuel for nuclear power plants. McCain’s promise to build 45 new nuclear power plants would mean more jobs for this economically depressed area. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005, 25.3 percent of the population of Scioto County, which includes Portsmouth, living in poverty.

Of course, the uranium must come from somewhere, and it is a contentious issue among McCain’s constituents in Arizona. In December, the U.S. Forest Service approved the first permits for uranium exploration near the Grand Canyon in two decades. Last month, the House Natural Resources Committee issued an emergency declaration that put one-million acres off limits near the canyon. Mining is particularly controversial on Indian reservations, where much of it takes place and many of the tragic effects from decades of mining — including water contamination, high cancer rates and birth defects – have yet to be addressed.

McCain is an ardent supporter of increasing the use of nuclear energy to help wean America from foreign oil. But he has thus far avoided talking about its potential consequences on his home state. Now that he has effectively secured the GOP nomination for president, maybe he should let Arizona residents know how he plans to balance the energy needs of the nation with their environmental and health concerns.

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