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European experts see strong future for nuclear power

By David K. WillisStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 1983


* Only one-eighth of all electricity in the United States is generated by nuclear plants.

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* Memories of Three Mile Island, films such as ''The China Syndrome,'' detailed regulations, and inflation have lengthened the time between the first blueprints and opening ceremony for a nuclear plant to an average of 12 to 16 years.

* Falling demand for energy since 1978 led to 18 proposed new plants being cancelled in 1982 alone.

But this picture of slowdown does not tell the whole story worldwide, according to a new report and estimates emerging on this side of the Atlantic.

Advocates of nuclear-generated electricity as one replacement for expensive oil agree their cause has suffered sharp setbacks. Many worry about hazards. Start-up costs are very high. But they say as fast-breeder reactors are developed, the nuclear-power industry will continue to do much better than their critics predict.

''Look at the US and you conclude that nuclear power is dead,'' says Prof. Wolf Hafele of West Germany's Nuclear Research Institute in Julich. ''But that's a wrong conclusion. Growth in nuclear-generated power has been steady since 1970 , and it will continue despite difficulties.''

Part of the reason for the slowdown in the US is extreme environmental concern, and part is its system of strict siting and engineering regulations.

West Europeans also face complex regulations, and Western industrial nations have had to lower their forecasts of nuclear capacity on line by 1990. However, European regulations are not as demanding as those in America. And in the East bloc, the Soviet Union, which is pushing ahead with nuclear plants, tends to subordinate environmental concerns to the national need for more power in the populous western areas of the country.

While the antinuclear lobby remains strong - especially when it comes to weapons - in West Germany and elsewhere, Professor Hafele and other Europeans point to these developments:

* Electricity generated by nuclear plants in the major noncommunist industrial countries rose by 8.3 percent last year, according to figures just released by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

The share of electrical power now generated by nuclear fuel by member states of the OECD is now 14.8 percent. It is expected to rise to 24 percent by 1990 and 29 percent by the year 2000. A new NEA report says that ''despite problems in various countries and cancellations of reactors, the contribution from nuclear power is steadily growing.''

* Five OECD states now generate more than one-quarter of their electricity from nuclear fuel. These are: Finland (40.3 percent), France (38.7 percent), Sweden (38.6 percent), Belgium (30.2 percent), and Switzerland (28.2 percent).

The figures, also from the OECD, show that 229 operable nuclear reactors were located in the OECD countries last year, 15 more than in 1981. Total installed capacity was 147 gigawatts (1 gigawatt equals 1 million kilowatts). Under construction were 149 plants with a capacity of 151 gigawatts, and 27 more were on order.