The Why Files The Why Files --

 The science behind the politics: What should the candidates be talking about?
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scientist looks into microscope
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Questions for candidates:

speaker in coat and tie , with McCain poster beneath
Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison nuclear reactor in August for some electioneering. Pawlenty said expanding nuclear is part of McCain's "all of the above" strategy for reducing reliance on imported energy.

Nuclear power: What federal action do you favor?

Nature of the problem: Nuclear power is homegrown, low-carbon power. About 100 reactors in the United States provide about 20 percent of our electricity. The majority of American electricity comes from burning coal, which exacts an environmental toll at the mine and in the atmosphere.

Scope of the problem: Electricity is the power of the future, the juice of the Internet, and the energy for plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars. Nuclear plants are an always-on, low-carbon solution to generating electricity (although diesel fuel is burned when uranium is mined and waste is stored). But nuclear power has drawbacks, which stem from the dramatic increase in radioactivity that occurs as atoms are split in a reactor:

— Nuclear can be dangerous: The 1986 meltdown of the Soviet reactor Chernobyl (near Kiev, Ukraine) spread a vast radioactive cloud, and a large area around the reactor is still too "hot" for human occupation.

— A nuclear reactor can take a decade to build, and the siting process always arouses controversy.

— An expensive techno-political tussle continues at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, 21 years after the feds initiated work on a national storage site for high-level radioactive waste.

— The high level of radioactivity in waste makes it a potential raw material for nuclear weapons.

Sen. McCain favors building 45 nuclear plants by 2030, and Sen. Obama has spoken in favor of expanding "safe and secure" nuclear energy.

The big questions: Exactly how should the United States promote nuclear power? What is a reasonable goal for building new reactors? If the new reactors will not start supplying energy for a decade, what should we do in the meantime? What would you do with the growing stockpile of nuclear waste?

More reading:

Obama's positions on energy, etc.

Dealing with nuclear waste.

Aftermath of Chernobyl

Radiation reassessed.

Yucca Mountain timeline.

Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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