In a second straight day of campaigning devoted to the energy issue, the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting also said the only time Democratic rival Barack Obama voted for a tax cut it was a "break for the oil companies."
McCain said the 104 nuclear reactors currently operating around the country produce about 20 percent of the nation's annual electricity needs.
"Every year, these reactors alone spare the atmosphere from the equivalent of nearly all auto emissions in America. Yet for all these benefits, we have not broken ground on a single nuclear plant in over thirty years," he said. "And our manufacturing base to even construct these plants is almost gone."
Even so, he said he would set the country on a course to build 45 new ones by 2030, with a longer-term goal of adding another 55 in the future.
"We will need to recover all the knowledge and skills that have been lost over three stagnant decades in a highly technical field," he conceded.
McCain did not say what steps, if any, he would propose to simplify the permitting process for nuclear plants. Nor did he say how he would dispose of the waste, other than to say "we will need to solve complex problems of moving and storing materials that will always need safeguarding."
Shortly after he spoke, a participant in a campaign-organized round-table discussion of energy, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, said obtaining the necessary construction permits can take five years. "We should be able to cut that in half," added Jones, a former NATO commander who is now chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber Institute for 21st Century Energy. He also is on the board of Chevron.
Jones flew to Missouri aboard the campaign's chartered jet although, ironically, Democrats recently disclosed that his name has figured in Obama campaign discussions of potential Democratic vice presidential running mates.
McCain's motorcade drove by a few dozen sign-carrying demonstrators protesting the Iraq War. One audience member interrupted his remarks by standing and shouting that the Arizona senator had taken millions from the oil industry.
A dramatic spike in worldwide oil prices has pushed the cost of gasoline to $4 a gallon and more, and made energy a domestic political issue in a way it has not been since the days of the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s.
McCain delivered a speech in Texas in which he made the case for a nationwide effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil, including additional drilling in U.S. coastal waters, and said he would begin laying out specific proposals in the coming days.
With his appearance in Missouri, he began making good on that promise.
The Republican presidential contender said Missouri gets about 85 percent of its electricity from coal, an abundant natural resource in the U.S.
"Perhaps no advancement in energy technology could mean more to America than the clean burning of coal and the capture and storage of carbon emissions," he said.
With the $2 billion in federal funds, he said, "We will build the demonstration plants, refine the techniques and equipment, and make clean coal a reality. This single achievement will open vast amounts of our oldest and most abundant resource. And it will deliver not only electricity but jobs to some of the areas hardest hit by our economic troubles."
It was the second straight day McCain has criticized Obama, the Illinois senator who will collect the Democratic presidential nomination this summer, a few days before McCain lays claim to the GOP nomination.
Obama has said McCain's support for additional offshore oil drilling is evidence that he would effectively give the country another term of the Bush presidency.
"I guess the senator has changed his position since voting for the 2005 Bush energy bill a grab-bag of corporate handouts that I opposed," McCain said. "Come to think of it, that energy bill was the only time we've ever seen Senator Obama vote in favor of any tax break and it was a tax break for the oil companies."
McCain opposed the 2005 measure and said at the time it was larded with billions in unnecessary tax breaks for the oil industry.