Is US letting nuclear option lapse?

America's nuclear power industry has no doubts about why reactor construction has stalled in the United States --and no hesitancy about calling for a reversal of government energy policies to correct the situation.

The industry warns that urgent action is needed if the United States hopes to recapture vital ground lost to the Soviet Union in nuclear power technology.

In a recent outline of the energy alternatives confronting the US, the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, set up in 1972 by the nation's major utility companies, concluded that:

"The main drawbacks for nuclear power seem to be the extremely long licensing periods, which boost capital out-lays by delaying construction, and public concern over nuclear safety. . . . In view of these costly delays and concerns, many utilities have grown wary of ordering new nuclear plants, and the extent of future nuclear power growth in the United States now appears uncertain."

Nuclear power industry experts, gathered in Chicago recently for the American Power Conference, echoed these concerns. Joseph Edelstein, Chicago spokesman for the American Nuclear Society, warned one seminar here that "Nuclear power may be foreclosed as an option for this country." He that this risk has resulted in universities canceling courses dealing with nuclear technology and many qualified nuclear engineers switching into other fields.

One sign of the shift away from nuclear power in the US is that no American utility company has ordered a new nuclear reactor since the Three Mile Island plant accident two years ago. Meanwhile, 14 reactors that had been planned have been canceled.

Even with the slowdown in the nuclear power industry, 72 operating nuclear plants currently produce 13 percent of US electricity, according to the Illinois-based American Nuclear Society. Seven more units should come on line this year, with total operating units increasing to 120 by 1985.

The situation is very different in the Soviet Union, according to Dr. David Rossin, director of Research for Commonwealth Edison, the Chicago-based utility that in 1960 became the first private company to build and operate a commercial nuclear power plant. Dr. Rossin told the Monitor that a time when government and public pressures are stalling nuclear power development in the United States , the Soviets are building reactor components on a production-line basis in their Atommash plant. Although only 5 percent of the Soviet Union's electricity is currently produced with nuclear power, the target is 25 percent in the next 10 years -- a level the US could reach only by the year 2000 at the earliest, according to American Nuclear Society estimates.

"We are heading toward a shortage of nuclear capacity," Rossin warns, "with an almost impossible lead time to make up for it." He says the choking effect of electricity shortages is visible regionally as factories and industries with high electricity needs move out of areas such as Ohio and the Pacific Northwest, which have allowed shortages to develop.

On an international scale, Rossin says he believes the massive Soviet commitment to nuclear power could have the same transforming effect there that, on a far smaller scale, the Tennessee Valley Authority has had in the US.

Another nuclear power industry expert seriously concerned about the present situation is John Selby, board chairman of the Consumers Power Company in Jackson, Mich. Speaking at the Chicago seminar, he said he can't commit his utility to building its fifth nuclear reactor until there are changes on five fronts.

Along with others warning that the stall in the nuclear industry could turn into a nose dive unless government policies toward nuclear energy change, Mr. Selby called for:

* "Licensing reform," to remove the costly bureaucratic delays that mean it now takes 12 to 15 years to build the same type of plant previously constructed in 6 years.

* "Accountability," to require government agencies to pick up at least part of the tab when they call for costly changes after plans have been approved and construction begun.

* "An approved and funded program for spent fuel, reprocessing, and storage of high-level waste," to allow the industry to plan for the future.

* "An action program" that reflects what has been learned from Three Mile Island: that "fuel meltdown is a possibility" that must be dealt with through detailed contingency plans.

* Reducing the licensing delays in order to "reduce the cost of plant construction by one-third" through cutting the tremendous interest charges that accumulate on any multibillion-dollar project.

Such changes will depend on new attitudes in Washington, according to E. P. Wilkinson, president of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, whose work with nuclear programs in the Navy included commanding the first US nuclear submarine. "The technology is there, the plants are safe, the plants are a cheaper way to produce electricity," Mr. Wilkinson told fellow nuclear power experts in Chicago, "but we can't build them until we get government support."

Gerard Smith and George Rathjens, two former Carter administration officials responsible for nonproliferation matters, deal with the question of US government support for nuclear power in the spring issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. They explain that in the eyes of key Western allies and the US nuclear industry, "US decisions to frego reprocessing and to delay breeder commercialization were construed as reflecting a generally negative attitude to nuclear power, a perception reinforced when President Carter characterized it as an energy option of last resort."

The nuclear industry today hopes that President Reagan will carry thro ugh on early indications of a more positive government attitude.

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