The day four nuclear plants weren't built

The decision of a consortium of Ohio utility companies to abandon construction of four major nuclear power plants has been dubbed the largest such cancellation in the history of the nuclear industry. Perhaps even more significant than the size of the cancellation, however, may be one of the developments said to have prompted the consortium to drop its plans. Although the group cited a number of familiar problems -- such as "intensified political and regulatory uncertainty" in the wake of Three Mile Island and persistent economic troubles in the largely industrial area -- another key reason for dropping the project was said to be a smaller demand for electricity than had been expected.

More than 50 other power plants across the US have have reportedly been cancelled since 1972, and decline in the rate of growth in demand for electricity has been a factor in some. At the outset of the 1970s utility companies had expected demand to grow at about 7 percent a year, but by the decade's end, growth in the industrial North and Midwest had dropped to half that. If this turns out to be an early signal that energy conservation efforts are starting to pay off, rather than just another indication of economic problems, it is a development that ought to be welcomed by industry and public alike.

Such a downturn would come as no surprise to some energy experts. Several recent academic studies -- the most recent, a four- year undertaking by the National Academy of Sciences -- have held out conservation, or more efficient use of energy, as the first-priority solution to the nation's energy problems. Furthermore, efficiency proponents note that experience already has shown that national economic growth need not be hampered by slower energy growth. Between 1973 and 1978, for instance, they point out, America's energy consumption grew only 5 percent, while the gross national product, after inflation is accounted for, grew 12 percent.

As for increased public concern about the safety of nuclear generating plants , the latest study of the Three Mile Island mishap ought to erase any doubts that such caution is warranted. An investigate team discovered that the Three Mile Island accident came much closer -- within 30 to 60 minutes -- to a catastrophic "meltdown" of the nuclear fuel core than had previously been reported. The Special Study Group faulted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on a number of the same points as did the earlier Kemeny study commissioned by President Carter. This new study was conducted for the NRC. It reached the disturbing conclusion that the NRC was not so much "badly managed" as it "wasn't managed at all," and it warned that as presently constituted the NRC is incapable of managing a safety program "adequate to ensure the public health and safety."

Among the key recommendations of the study group was a reorganization of the NRC, with more authority vested in a single top administrator. One of its strongest suggestions was that the NRC assume a larger role in the training of nuclear plant operators and that an industry-wide consortium be created to manage the nuclear plants of any electric company found to be incapable or unqualified to do so. It also urged the closing of nuclear plants in areas too densely populated to be evacuated and said that future plants should be built in the most remote site possible -- no closer than 10 miles from a population center.

The NRC already has taken initial steps to prevent a recurrence of the same kind of accident as at Three Mile Island. Moreover, if reduced energy consumption leads to further cancellations of nuclear plants still on the drawing board, the safety issue may prove less of a problem in the future. But as long as nuclear power is seen as necessary, its inherent risks will need to be dealt with.

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