McCain on Nuclear Reactor Safety


This week, John McCain has been talking up his proposed “all-of-the-above” energy program, which includes off-shore drilling and 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030.  In support of his proposal, McCain gives the example of France, which generates almost 80% of its electricity from nuclear power plants. Senator McCain also says that the U.S. Navy (in which his father and grandfather rose to the rank of admiral) has safely operated nuclear power plants in its aircraft and submarines “without an accident in 60 years. There has never been a recorded case that I know of where someone has been injured, killed or had ill effects of those nuclear power plants,” McCain said.

Not quite. 

Fox News reported:  “Last week, the Navy announced that one of its nuclear-powered submarines, the USS Houston, had leaked minimally radioactive water earlier this year. An investigation showed water may have been slowly leaking from the valve since March as the Los Angeles-class submarine traveled around the Pacific.”

This blog can cite another accident within the 60-year naval history to which McCain refers.  On April 10, 1963, the nuclear-powered submarine USS Thresher sank to the bottom of the Atlantic during a deep test dive.  All 133 men on board died.  The subsequent U.S. Navy investigation of the disaster identified a leak in an engine room seawater system as the most probable cause of the tragedy. Following a short circuit in the engine room, automatic reactor shut-down led to a loss of propulsion, causing the submarine to sink, with parts scattered over a large area of the ocean bottom at a depth of 8400 feet.

 A nuclear accident always involves some form of human error — either a design flaw or an operational error. In the Thresher tragedy, all the evidence suggested that the crew followed their text book training in responding to a leak. Unlike older conventional powered submarines, which normally blew their ballast tanks in an emergency, nuclear subs were designed to recover from a leak by using the propulsion system to drive the boat to the surface. The reactor automatically shut down when it was not in imminent danger, and was needed to save the boat. A backup system to blow the ballast tanks may also have failed because of a design flaw. Admiral Hyman Rickover, well known as a cranky micromanager, resented and tried to quash any suggestions that the submarine nuclear reactor design and operational procedures that he oversaw were flawed. However, the evidence strongly suggests that those 133 men died because of a faulty nuclear reactor safety system design.

On the Daily News Blog, Errol Louis has also questioned Senator McCain’s assertion of 60 years of accident-free nuclear safety in the U.S. military. Louis cited a number of radiation contamination instances involving U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarines.  The Swiftboaters of 2008 immediately started excoriating Mr. Louis for not giving sources.

The Daily Kos found some of the sources, including

This blog is not ideologically opposed to nuclear power.  There may be a place for U.S. civilian nuclear power plants as part of a carefully-developed total energy policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.   Steve Hargreaves recently posted a thoughtful discussion of the issues at

The question is, do you want to trust our safety from nuclear accidents to a man who can’t get his facts straight, graduated 894th out of 899 in his U.S. Naval Academy class and who destroyed five of his own aircraft before being shot down on a bombing mission over Vietnam?


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