Is there a future for nuclear power? Illinois not so sure now
LaSalle County, Ill.
The nation's nuclear industry faces some ticklish questions. They have emerged from long debates over troubled nuclear plants, from the West Coast to Long Island, N.Y. But nowhere is the debate as sharply focused as in northern Illinois.Skip to next paragraph
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This is Commonwealth Edison country. The utility - generally recognized as the leader in nuclear plant construction - pumps out almost half its power from seven nuclear reactors. By 1986, it hopes to bring five more on line.
The next unit expected to come on line is the Unit II reactor here at the LaSalle County Nuclear Station. In another era, the mood here might be as bright as the snow-covered fields that surround the boxy plant. But not now.
Last month, utility companies in nearby Ohio and Indiana scrapped two controversial nuclear plants. In Illinois itself, Commonwealth Edison announced six-month delays in starting up three other nuclear reactors. The biggest blow landed Jan. 13. For the first time ever, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) denied an operating license to a nuclear power plant - Commonwealth Edison's nearby Byron Unit I reactor.
''It's got the company in an uproar,'' says Gerald Diederich, superintendent of the LaSalle plant. ''But we're not demoralized. We're going to stand up on our haunches and get that plant running.''
The chain of reversals has helped to focus public attention on the issue. But it has also drawn the battle lines more sharply between those who believe in nuclear power and those who, for whatever reason, don't. Unfortunately, the debate has grown more vocal without answering three crucial questions about nuclear power. They are so basic and yet so contentious that they have almost become riddles:
The first is the most emotional: Can man control nuclear power?
For Mr. Diederich and others, the answer is absolutely yes. Would technicians risk their lives working and living near something that was hazardous? they ask.
Yes, says Edward Gogol, president of Citizens Against Nuclear Power, because the technicians don't clearly perceive the risks. ''They don't really have any idea what a powder keg they're sitting on.''
Here in LaSalle County, some people are raising a related issue, says Robert Eschbach, president of a local environmental group. Their concern is not as much the safe operation of the plant, but how the utility plans to shut it down once the plant becomes obsolete.
While environmentalists and technicians argue the first riddle, consumer and industrial groups are focusing on the second: Perhaps man can harness the nuclear genie, they say, but can he do it economically?
''There are an awful lot of people in the regulatory process who are not antinuclear,'' says Al Grandys, director of the Illinois governor's Office of Consumer Services. ''They are really arguing economics.''
Many are concerned about the rate hikes Commonwealth Edison customers have received in 7 of the past 10 years.
In December 1971, the utility won approval for a $66 million rate increase. Eleven years later to the month, Commonwealth Edison got an increase 10 times that total. The utility admits that roughly three-quarters of those rate hikes are due to the utility's nuclear building program, which is the most ambitious in the country. Now, Commonwealth Edison is asking for its biggest rate increase ever: $964 million.
Here at LaSalle, utility executives blame a combination of inflation, over-regulation, and endless delays.