Republican John McCain said he understands Washington's skepticism about nuclear energy, given the contamination at Hanford, the worst bond...

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Republican John McCain said he understands Washington’s skepticism about nuclear energy, given the contamination at Hanford, the worst bond default in history and nuclear power plants left unfinished.

“Obviously, the people of this state and America need assurances that nuclear power will be an energy source that will be clean, that we will have ways of addressing the spent nuclear fuel and that we will make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” McCain said Tuesday at an environmental roundtable near North Bend.

Speaking at a panel discussion his campaign organized, the presumed Republican presidential nominee promoted nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels that are linked to climate change.

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Tuesday’s meeting at a Seattle Public Utilities education center was part of a two-day Northwest swing aimed at boosting McCain’s environmental credentials and distancing himself from President Bush.

“I will be a president of the United States for the environment,” McCain declared.

But not everyone was convinced that more nuclear power is a good idea — at least not right away.

“I don’t think the federal government has really done a good job of managing the waste here,” Bruce Williams, chairman and CEO of HomeStreet Bank, told McCain. “At least for some of us in this state, we’d like to see that get taken care of before creating more of it.”

Williams is also vice chairman of the Cascade Land Conservancy and a donor to Democratic political campaigns.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site. The federal government agreed in 1989 to clean it up, but a contractor has been struggling to design and build a $12.2 billion plant to convert millions of gallons of radioactive waste into glasslike logs for long-term disposal underground.

The plant isn’t expected to be finished until 2019.

The state’s nuclear history also includes the massive bond defaults associated with the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS). In the late 1970s the utility planned to build five nuclear power plants, but ran into problems with rising costs and concerns about safety. In 1983, it halted construction and defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds — the biggest municipal-bond default in history.

Two partially finished WPPSS plants at Satsop are now part of a business park.

McCain told Williams that if Europe can successfully manage nuclear power, so can the United States.

Nuclear-powered ships have traveled safely around the globe for 60 years, McCain told the room of about 100 people, including press, gathered for the meeting.

“We ought to be able, as a nation, to address the issue of transportation of the spent nuclear fuel, the storage of it, whether it’ll be reprocessed,” he said.

In an interview Tuesday, Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat and leading advocate for clean energy, said it’s cheaper to invest in wind power or more efficient use of electricity than to build more nuclear power plants.

Inslee said he doesn’t think nuclear will be a good option until there is a dependable way to dispose of the waste.

And nothing in Europe gives him confidence that will happen soon.

McCain touted France’s use of nuclear power, but Inslee pointed out that the French government stores the waste above ground.

“We really have to find a long-term disposal system that Americans have confidence in,” he said.

After the panel discussion and a brief news conference, McCain headed into a steady downpour for a tour of the Cedar River Municipal Watershed.

He walked along the top of Masonry Dam with Washington State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland and Ralph Naess, an education program manager for Seattle Public Utilities. The city gets 70 percent of its drinking water from the mountain lake backed up behind the 1915 dam.

Tuesday night he was scheduled to attend a campaign fundraiser in Bellevue.

McCain began his Northwest jaunt in Portland, where he delivered a speech on global warming and laid out his plans to reduce greenhouse gases. His call for more nuclear power is a key to that plan.

The Arizona senator landed at Boeing Field on Tuesday amid a protest from members of Boeing’s machinists union. The machinists are unhappy with McCain’s backing of an Air Force decision this year to award an aerial refueling tanker contract to the European consortium Airbus rather than to Boeing.

McCain said he never favored one company over another during the bidding process. But he led an investigation that unraveled the original 2001 Boeing tanker contract and led to prison time for a Boeing executive and a former Pentagon official.

McCain said he never worked against Boeing but wanted to ensure the selection process was open and fair.

“My first obligation to the taxpayers of America is the careful stewardship of their dollars and not to have them wasted in a corrupted process,” he said.

But the environment was at the top of McCain’s agenda this trip.

During the panel discussion, he asked REI Chief Executive Officer Sally Jewell what she would want out of a McCain administration.

She told McCain that the outdoor outfitter is converting 10 stores to solar power this year, “in sunnier markets than the one you’re presently sitting in.” Some states have tax incentives that make converting to solar financially viable, she said, but not the federal government.

“There isn’t anything significant that helps us make the right decisions,” Jewell said.

McCain, delivering what he called some of his trademark “straight talk,” said he is wary of subsidies. He said that ethanol subsidies have distorted the market.

And he said the solar industry was given too many subsidies after the 1970s gas crisis and “we turned out to have some pretty shoddy material.”

David Postman: 360-236-8267 or

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