THE National Energy Strategy recently released by President Bush calls for a number of changes to make it easier to construct new nuclear power plants in the United States. Steps proposed by the administration - among them approval of incomplete reactor designs, elimination of public review of reactor construction quality, and 20-year extensions of operating licenses for reactors with known safety hazards - eliminate many of the checks now in place to protect public health and safety. In exchange for weaker regulation of this temperamental technology, it is claimed that our nation's dependency on imported oil will be reduced. But contrary to the administration's claim that ``nuclear power is a plus for energy security,'' new nuclear plants will have little impact on levels of imported oil.
Only 5 percent of our nation's electricity comes from oil-fired power plants. The total amount of imported oil that nuclear power could possibly replace is even smaller - only 3 percent of our total national electric demand. Nuclear power plants cannot replace oil-fired facilities used for short periods on a daily basis to meet peak demand.
Also, the oil used in those plants is ``bottom of the barrel'' material. It is a heavy, tar-like residual that remains after lighter, more valuable products have been taken out of the crude. Oil-import levels reflect demand for those lighter products, not the residual.
Another argument - that nuclear energy is embraced warmly in other countries - also fails to survive scrutiny. One would be hard pressed to find a nation that is moving forward on nuclear energy without considerable problems.
Eastern European reactors that are poorly, if not dangerously designed and constructed were among the first targets of democratically elected governments in that region. No sooner was Germany reunified, than Bonn shut down Soviet-designed reactors in the former East Germany. Austria is so concerned about conditions at two reactors in Czechoslovakia that it has offered to subsidize construction of new electric plants in exchange for closure of the reactors.
The turn away from nuclear energy is not limited to Eastern Europe. Italian voters adopted a national policy prohibiting construction of new nuclear plants or the expansion of existing ones. Swiss voters approved a referendum banning new reactor construction for the next decade. Britain put nuclear construction starts on hold pending proof that the technology can be cost-effective.
Even the nuclear industry's two shining examples of how nuclear energy can work - France and Japan - are showing weakening in their support.
In Japan, 25 percent of the nation's electricity comes from nuclear energy. The government hopes to push that figure over 40 percent after the turn of the century. Yet polls show 51 percent of the Japanese public opposes the government's policy to build more nuclear plants. Another 16 percent even wants to shut down the existing reactors.
An astounding 86 percent of Japanese respondents feel ``uncertain'' about nuclear energy. Over half of those polled did not trust the government and utilities to assure safe operation of the reactors. That last figure will undoubtedly increase in the aftermath of an accident at a Japanese reactor in early February.
France relies on nuclear reactors to supply 75 percent of its electricity. But the French people are nervous about being so dependent on this technology. Four out of 10 French respondents would like to completely stop use of nuclear power plants. That is hardly the ringing endorsement we are led to believe exists.
With nuclear energy's negligible effect on oil imports, and much of the world retreating from nuclear energy, why we are being asked to move ahead on it? Until the administration can provide a good reason, the American public should not be placed at greater risk solely to benefit this already-pampered technology.
No one argues about the need to reduce our dependency on imported oil. But we should not look to nuclear energy to reach that goal. The administration's unsupported and misguided proposals on nuclear energy should be scrapped.