Iraq Could Revive Nuclear Power in US


CARL GOLDSTEIN doesn't quite say, ``I told you so.'' But this long-time advocate of nuclear power does hold that the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait ``confirms what we have been saying for the past seven years.'' Mr. Goldstein is vice president of the United States Council for Energy Awareness. For seven years, this nuclear power industry trade association has ran an advertising campaign backing nuclear power as one means for the US to get greater energy independence from OPEC without extra greenhouse gasses.

The expansion of nuclear power is largely on hold. No new nuclear plants have been ordered since 1978, and the last two were canceled. Nuclear power opponents have been fighting those plants ordered in 1974 or earlier but not completed or still subject to license challenges. These include the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire, which only reached full-power operating status last week, and the Shoreham plant, its mothballing by New York governor Mario Cuomo (D) forcing Long Island Lighting Company to import an extra 20,000 barrels of oil a day. Several others are more than 50 percent complete, but held up or canceled for various reasons.

``There has been a lot of lean years,'' Goldstein says.

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Amazingly, the US nuclear industry has survived those years, partially by building plants abroad. ``Manufacturers are ready to go back to work,'' Goldstein maintains.

Indeed, he expects the first new order for a nuclear power plant to be made in the mid-1990s. Most likely, he says, the order will not be made by an electrical utility alone, but by a corporate group that could include an architect-engineering firm, a manufacturer of nuclear power plants, a Wall Street firm that could help provide financing, and only maybe a utility. The plant will probably be located on a site where nuclear plants are already in operation. It will be an ``advanced'' water-cooled reactor that uses a ``passive'' safety system less dependent on fallible operators and pumps should there be some sort of system breakdown.

Such a group, Goldstein figures, could better withstand the flack that will arise with the first new order. More orders will follow. That's because the nation will desperately need the power.

Today the 112 operating reactors in the US provide about 20 percent of the nation's total electrical output. In 14 other nations, nuclear plants provide a larger proportion of total power. Nuclear provides more than 75 percent in France, for example.

At present the nation's electrical utilities are operating, on average, within 1 or 2 percent of the 17 percent reserve capacity they like to maintain to handle unexpected power outages or scheduled plant maintenance. In recent years, total power consumption has been growing around 3.2 percent annually. This year, because of the economic slowdown and cooler weather, total electricity consumption may grow only 1.5 percent.

But the utilities have been adding only 1 percent per year in new power capacity. Most of this has come from gas turbine plants, rather than major new coal-fired plants that add to a utility's ``base-load capacity.'' Some ``independent power'' from non-utility companies is also being bought.

All this adds up to an electrical power shortage soon. The Department of Energy has estimated the nation will need 150,000 megawatts (MW) by the end of the century on top of the current generating capacity of about 640,000 MW.

In other words, the US could use 150 oil-saving major new nuclear power plants this decade. It won't get them, of course. It takes at least six years to build a nuclear plant.

To find solutions, Goldstein holds that President Bush should be giving more urgency to its national energy strategy. A draft report is supposed to go to the White House by December. To encourage nuclear power, he continues, Congress should pass a bill to permit a faster one-license procedure for new nuclear power plants. And state public utility commissions should allow utilities to put the cost of new nuclear power plants into their rate base if built ``prudently.'' These commissions have disallowed $13 billion in plant construction costs in recent years.

Meanwhile, utilities will be scrambling for other power sources and more conservation as brownouts spread from the eastern seaboard to other regions - unless saved by a deep slump.

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