ANYONE interested in the choices the United States faces on energy should keep a close eye on New York's Long Island. The state seems about to throw the $5.3 billion Shoreham nuclear power plant away - a plant ready to run since 1983. That would be a mistake, especially in an area that needs more electricity.
Shoreham is not the only nuclear plant in the nation which is facing premature closing. A referendum on the ballot in Sacramento County, Calif., would close the Rancho Seco nuclear plant. But there, plant opponents can at least build a case based on the plant's poor operating record. Shoreham, by contrast, won't even have had an operating history to examine.
The ratepayers have already invested tens of millions of dollars in the plant through past rate increases. Their utility bills are guaranteed to rise further, as much as 5 percent a year for at least 10 years, even if the plant is closed. What would they get for their money? Nothing.
The rate increases represent one carrot the state is dangling before Long Island Lighting Company (Lilco), Shoreham's owner, in a deal designed to close the plant.
At the same time, the state-established Long Island Power Authority is pursuing a takeover bid for Lilco. The object of the takeover is the same: to keep Shoreham closed. Even if the state-run power authority takes over, rates would rise.
Responding to some residents' safety concerns, state and local officials doubt the adequacy of federally required evacuation plans for the plant's environs. Opponents of nuclear energy - from grass-roots groups to state governors - have capitalized on those concerns elsewhere to block a plant's operation. Yet each day Shoreham stands idle, it costs the utility more money. Those rising costs either get passed on to ratepayers, a.k.a. voters, or sink the utility, which also affects ratepayers.
The options? They are no different from those confronting the nation at large. How about a coal-fired plant? Community opposition, based on environmental and logistical concerns, torpedoed that idea when it was proposed. Gas turbines, which burn kerosene? That also fell to community opposition. It is technically feasible to run high-tension lines under Long Island Sound and bring electricity in from areas with surpluses. But that would be expensive, and surpluses are getting harder to come by these days, especially in the Northeast.
That leaves conservation, which can help, but is not likely to keep pace with growing demand.
Twenty years from now, after tighter controls have been placed on fossil-fuel emissions, oil prices have risen, and conservation has squeezed the last cost-effective watt out of existing generators, state officials may look at the concrete shell that will be Shoreham and rue the day it was closed.
As the national election debate cranks up this summer, the candidates should note that the US still lacks a consistent national energy policy that could prevent such costly false starts.