Bush Energy Plan Stirs New Debate on Nuclear Power

Advocates and critics draw lines on safety and need

NUCLEAR power, the pincushion of United States energy sources, has seen a few things go its way lately. First there was concern about acid rain, to which advocates pointed out nuclear plants did not contribute. Then there was worry about the greenhouse effect and air pollution in general, which gave backers another PR point for their ``clean'' energy source.

Now, with war roiling in the Persian Gulf and the industry apparently about to get a boost from the Bush administration, advocates are once again predicting revival.

``It has all come together, and we think we have come together with it,'' says Scott Peters of the US Council for Energy Awareness, an industry group.

Critics, however, stand poised to stick in a few more pins.

The result: Nuclear power seems likely once again to be a significant part of the debate over America's energy future. ``This could be the biggest push for nuclear power we've seen in a long time,'' frets Michael Mariotte, head of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a group opposed to nuclear energy.

No new nuclear plants have been ordered since 1978, and the last two were cancelled. None of those ordered since 1973 has been completed. Most, in fact, have either been dropped or mothballed, partly because of a lack of electricity demand and partly because of opposition from antinuclear groups.

Now, however, advocates see several trends that they hope will change perceptions and help the industry rebound in the 1990s. One was a blueprint drawn up by the industry late last fall. It called for improving the reliability of existing plants, moving forward on nuclear-waste disposal, and coming up with standard plant designs to help speed the regulatory process.

Second is the Gulf war. It has reminded Americans how dependent the country is on foreign energy, and nuclear advocates hope this will translate into a diversified energy mix with a more prominent role for the atom.

Critics consider this specious. Nuclear accounts for 20 percent of the electricity generated in the US; oil-fired plants produce 5 percent. Thus, they argue, producing more nuclear plants would do little to reduce US dependence on foreign crude.

The industry, however, contends that use of oil to generate power is rising and that, with the demand for electricity projected to rise sharply in the years ahead, the nation cannot afford ignore the atom.

A third development is the Bush administration's long-awaited national energy plan. Draft copies of the Department of Energy (DOE) document indicate the administration plans to encourage the use of nuclear power.

At the heart of this move is likely to be a push for ``one-stop'' licensing for new nuclear plants. This would allow builders to obtain their construction and operating licenses in the same proceeding. The aim is to eliminate the risk of costly delays after a plant is built, providing a more predictable regulatory regime.

A SIMILAR idea was pushed in Congress last year but was defeated in the House. The concept also is embraced in a new energy plan from by Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana and Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming.

Environmentalists and others insist problems can arise during construction, and a second public hearing should be held after a plant is built but before it is switched on.

The question is whether the political dynamics have changed on Capitol Hill. ``I can't see the current energy situation being enough to change how people feel about nuclear power,'' says a House staff member.

Underlying the debate are questions about the need for electricity. DOE has estimated the country will need at least 150,000 more megawatts - the equivalent of 150 current-sized nuclear plants - by the end of the century.

Opponents say if more power is needed it can be met through conservation and other, ``less-risky'' energy forms - solar, wind, and natural gas. They point to a nuclear accident in Japan last weekend - which was that country's worst, even though the radiation released did not pose any threat to humans - as evidence that nuclear plants are unsafe.

With a streamlined regulatory process and standardized reactor designs, industry advocates believe a new nuclear plant could be ordered by the mid-1990s.

``I think their projections of the mid-1990s may be optimistic,'' says Paul Parshley, utilities analyst with Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc. in New York.

Analysts say there is still local opposition to nuclear power, waste disposal remains a problem, and it will take time for new rules and reactor designs to emerge.

``There is political momentum,'' says Phil Jiudice, a consultant with Temple Barker & Sloan in Massachusetts. But he adds that he doesn't think utilities are ready to bet on nuclear power yet.

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