IF there ever was a symbol of hope clashing with reality, it was the much-publicized potential of achieving nuclear fusion at room temperature. Unfortunately, ``cold fusion's'' promise of unlimited energy probably won't happen. The drive to find a ``miracle solution'' to increasing energy demands should not be allowed to dominate our considerations to the extent that the United States fails to develop sources of energy that can contribute in the near term. The 1990s loom as a challenging time. If we're not careful, the next energy crisis will be a widespread electricity shortage.
Despite conservation, many utilities are recording electric demand not expected until the next decade or beyond. Nationally, we are planning for 2.6 percent electricity growth and experiencing 4 to 5 percent. In New England, the region where the supply crunch is most serious, people are using 30 percent more electricity than they were five years ago, but generating capacity has grown only 8 to 10 percent. Across the country, our existing generating plants are aging. By the mid-1990s, more than half of all coal-fired boilers will be at least 25 years old, and the demand for power is expected to reach or exceed available generating capacity.
How then can an adequate supply of electricity be assured? We cannot rely heavily on coal and oil for power generation in view of the damage to the environment from acid rain, the threat of climate change from the greenhouse effect, and the danger of oil spills. The response goes beyond quick fixes such as stepping up the use of natural gas turbines. Greater energy efficiency and conservation, while worthwhile, will not assure long-term availability of electricity.
The cure seems deceptively simple: We need a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors that are safer than present plants, and simpler and cheaper to build. Using the familiar water-cooled technology of current nuclear power plants would be a good start. Congress and the Department of Energy should maintain a program of developing standardized designs for these reactors.
A distinguishing feature of these advanced reactor designs is a ``passive'' safety system. Passive safety features - employing gravity and natural convection - would do the work of the active network of pumps, piping, and control systems that ensure safety in current operating nuclear plants. In the remote possibility that systems malfunction, the plants will automatically shut down and self-cool.
These compact, mid-size reactors would be in the 600-megawatt electric range, and the plants would be made of modules fabricated at factories - where quality control and assurance are easier to maintain than with current on-site construction techniques. Entire plant construction would take 40 months instead of the 6 to 14 years currently experienced for a conventional, large nuclear power plant.
Although substantial progress has been made in developing next-generation reactors, utilities will need greater assurance from federal and state regulatory commissions that master designs for new plants will not be subject to constant change after construction has begun. They will also need guarantees that they can operate the plants once they are completed.
Clearly, state vetoes of the Shoreham plant in New York, and the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire, have set a dangerous precedent which is discouraging utilities from building new plants.
Recognizing the problems facing nuclear power, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) took an important step toward simplifying the regulatory process recently when it proposed that standard reactor designs be certified and plant building sites be approved well in advance of construction. Nearly all public hearings aimed at resolving litigious issues would be held before construction ever began, except for those that deal with the special circumstances of how the reactor fits onto the site. Virtually every country with nuclear power uses this practice.
All this puts Congress in a favorable position to incorporate the new NRC rules into law to make sure the reform sticks.
Meanwhile, the US needs to continue development efforts on technologies such as solar energy and conservation. Other types of advanced nuclear systems - such as modularized gas-cooled reactors and liquid-metal breeder reactors - can provide improvements in reliability and efficiency. And the US should continue research on fusion.
If it seems difficult to envision the construction of more nuclear plants in the future, it seems impossible to imagine our economy and environment remaining healthy for long without them. A great deal depends on how well we get on with the job.