THE United States entered the 1980s with considerable excess capacity for generating electricity. Now in the early 1990s, however, that once-comfortable margin is gone. This past year, residents in many parts of the country faced ``brownouts'' at times of peak use. Unless new generating plants are built soon, the problem of under-supply is going to get far worse. For a variety of reasons, including concern over global warming - which is caused in part by burning fossil fuels like coal and oil - many experts believe America must look to nuclear power as a prime source of the additional electricity it will need. But is the public willing to accept this solution?
It's not hard to see how the US got into its present predicament. Since the mid-1970s, utilities have canceled orders for 97 fossil-fuel plants and 111 nuclear-power plants. Some of these cancellations were entirely merited because, thanks to conservation, electricity use hasn't been increasing nearly as fast in the last 15 years as it had during the previous 15. But cuts in plant construction have exceeded the conservation dividend, in part as a result of successful protests over the perceived impact of additional plants on the environment.
Along with needing additional capacity to meet the current rate of increase in demand, the US should build new, well-designed, and efficiently constructed nuclear-power plants as part a key element in a larger strategy to reduce its again-growing use of foreign oil. The US gets only 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear - compared to world-leader France, which gets 70 percent; Sweden, 47 percent; Finland, 36 percent; Germany, 34 percent; and Japan, 27 percent.
Some analysts believe that, however much the US may need to build more nuclear power plants, it's unlikely to get them, given public opposition after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Polls find that only about a third of the American public say they favor building new nuclear-power plants - a proportion that has changed little in recent years.
In fact, however, the story of US opinion on nuclear power is much more complex. A series of articles published in the January/February issue of The Pubic Perspective, the Roper Center's bimonthly review of public opinion, shows that in most regards American opinion on nuclear power differs little from that in other industrial countries - including those that use nuclear heavily.
For example, in an April 1990 poll the respected French opinion research organization BVA Associates asked people in France whether they favored ``completely stopping use of nuclear-power plants?'' Forty-three percent said they did, only 45 percent that they did not. It's very unlikely any comparable question in the US would derive a higher antinuclear sentiment. Similarly, the French see a serious nuclear accident as a real possibility: In the April poll, 81 percent said it was possible in France. Only 12 percent said it wasn't. Polls in the US don't pick up any higher level of foreboding. Yet France gets 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear, with little public protest.
There is one area, however, where countries such as France and Japan do differ markedly from the US with regard to nuclear power: need. From the beginning of the nuclear age, public opinion everywhere has been uneasy about the destructive potential of nuclear power. At the same time, though, many people see nuclear generation as an unavoidably central element in meeting their electricity needs. The more a public sees a need for nuclear power, the more likely it is to resolve its fundamental ambivalence in favor of using it.
Writing in The Public Perspective, Ann Stouffer Bisconti of the US Council for Energy Awareness shows that what caused the proportion of Americans saying they oppose building new nuclear plants to rise in the 1980s was not increased fear, but the increased sense that the country's energy problems were well under control and, hence, that nuclear plants just weren't needed. She notes that for a time the public was in fact right. Today, however, with electricity in short supply, the public still persists in believing supplies are adequate.
Nowhere, it seems, are general publics really keen on using nuclear energy. Where we in the US are different from citizens in such countries as France and Japan is in our greater belief that we can get by with much less recourse to the use of nuclear energy. Today we are seriously wrong in this judgment.