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.
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.
''We jokingly say we built this place three times,'' says Robert Holyoak, project manager at LaSalle. ''You're dealing with delay upon delay upon delay, because they keep changing the ground rules.''
For example, when LaSalle was on the drawing board in 1970, the utility projected a total staff of 180 people for the plant, he says. By 1974, the figure was up to 240. By the end of this year, staffing is expected to reach 612 , not including an expanded security force. Instead of its original $670 million estimated price tag, the plant is now expected to cost $2.4 billion.
Critics, however, have not been satisfied with the company's answers.
''It's always: 'There's light at the end of the tunnel,' '' says David Stahr, research director for the Illinois Public Action Council. ''But (the problem) is that the tunnel is very long and very expensive.''
It is the third riddle, however, that is the most telling.
Does America even need nuclear power?
Many critics of Commonwealth Edison are concerned with all three riddles, says Jane Whicher, a lawyer for a nonprofit public-interest law and research center in Chicago who argued strongly against the Byron plant before the NRC licensing board. But even from a purely economic view, she notes, the numbers clearly show there is no need for at least two of Commonwealth Edison's five nuclear units under construction. Many critics believe Commonwealth Edison needs no nuclear power plants.
''It's adding plants when customer demand has been stable for the past five years,'' Mr. Stahr says.
Part of the problem, some critics suggest, is that the utility embarked on an ambitious nuclear-oriented program and is now simply being bullheaded about scrapping it at such an advanced phase. Others blame the regulatory system, which forces utilities to bring a plant on line before they can include plant expenses into the rate base. Commonwealth Edison, which expects its nuclear construction program to cost a total of $9.8 billion, simply wants to recoup its costs, they say.
But a different answer emerges from company officials. They admit that when all the nuclear plants are on line - perhaps by 1986 - their margin of reserve power will be a high 31 percent over peak demand. But, they caution, that figure is based on a low, 2 percent growth estimate in consumer demand.
''Two percent load growth? That says to me that the country's not going to grow,'' says Commonwealth Edison's Diederich.
Ms. Whicher believes that conservation measures will make even that 2 percent growth estimate much too high. She suggests conservation programs, cogeneration plants, and coal-fired units as alternatives to nuclear power.
But what appears to be at issue here is not merely the economics of nuclear power, but rather opposite visions of America's future.
From the post World War II era to the early '70s, the nation's energy needs grew as the economy boomed. Demand for electricity averaged a healthy 7 percent annual growth, says Don Winston, a spokesman for the Atomic Industrial Forum.
But the Arab oil embargo in 1973 changed all that. Fuel prices soared. Energy conservation came into vogue. And the growth in electricity demand was halved, he says. In 1982, demand declined for the first time since the Great Depression, although it's rebounding, he adds.
So which will it be? Will America go back to her old energy-using ways? Or are conservation and alternative energy here to stay? Energy producers and their critics have reached answers so diametrically opposed that the debate over nuclear power appears likely to drag on heatedly for some time to come.