THE Clinton administration is quietly supporting development of a new generation of nuclear power plants for the United States, the first of which could be ordered as early as the middle of this decade.
The project, started during the Reagan administration and continued under President Bush, is called the Light Water Reactor (LWR) program. Now fully funded for fiscal 1994 at $57.8 million, its roots grew from the utility industry's efforts to overcome the severe blow delivered to its nuclear sector by the nuclear power plant accident at Three Mile Island, Pa., on March 28, 1979.
The utility industry is squarely behind this effort to design a second generation of nuclear power plants. The industry has joined with plant manufacturers General Electric, Westinghouse Electric, and ABB Combustion Engineering to pay half of the development cost. The United States Department of Energy is paying the other half, although some DOE funds will be returned if new plants are built.
``We certainly support keeping open an option that has commercial potential,'' says a White House spokeswoman. This spokeswoman, who calls the LWR program a ``prudent approach,'' continues: ``Our energy policy has a lot of competing factors in it. Our emphasis is on increased efficiency and alternative energy sources. But we are also adhering to our own campaign pledge, no increased reliance on nuclear power.''
But what might the ``no increased reliance'' policy mean in practice? DOE projects that, by the year 2010, the US will need to have built the equivalent of 130 new 1,000-megawatt power plants, burning coal, oil, gas, and nuclear fuel.
Some 48 of these 130 plants will replace aging plants, but the other 82 will add to present capacity as the economy and demand for electricity grow. If reliance on nuclear power is held at its present 22 percent of all electricity generated, some new nuclear power plants will have to be built - even with strong conservation measures.
Many energy experts, including advocates of nuclear power, also point out that the current use of nuclear power has come about because coal-burning plants foul the air, overreliance on oil is dangerous because so much of it is imported, and gas supplies can fluctuate greatly in cold weather when heating needs rise. Pledge to cut greenhouse gases
Scott Peters, a spokesman for the US Council for Energy Awareness, a pro-nuclear group, says Clinton could have one other plausible reason for supporting the LWR program. Nuclear plants do not emit climate-warming gases into the atmosphere because they do not burn fossil fuels. Clinton has pledged to reduce such emissions in the US to the 1990 level by the year 2000 and plans a major statement on the topic by early October.
E.C. Brolin, acting director of DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy and one of the government's top experts in the field, says: ``The only place I've seen discussion of the move toward a new generation of nuclear power plants is in the trade press. It deserves discussion.''
A congressional staff member closely involved in energy legislation says that it appears funding for the LWR program will remain intact as the Appropriations Committees finish their work on energy matters in the next few weeks.
This source also says: ``Clinton appears kind of agnostic about nuclear power, not really [opposed]. And [Energy Secretary Hazel] O'Leary likes nuclear power. She also likes conservation and efficiency a lot.''
Ms. O'Leary has said, however, that the problem of where to store LWR waste fuel must be worked out before utilities will order a new generation of nuclear plants. The so-far-unsuccessful attempt to find permanent storage for spent fuel is itself a long and highly complicated story, but DOE is actively pursuing solutions.
Before joining the Clinton Cabinet, O'Leary was executive vice-president of Northern States Power in Minnesota - a utility that has had problems storing its spent nuclear fuel.
The nuclear power industry, and many top scientists, say that the highly complex spent-fuel storage question can be solved, while others, especially environmentalists, disagree. Industry tries to package plants
Also of fundamental importance, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, under a 1992 law, is working toward pre-approving plant designs, which include modular construction for economy. This means a utility could get an operation permit for the plant as soon as it buys the design. The idea is to have a ``done'' package, immune to legal delays, that can be sold to investors - now highly skeptical of the history of nuclear power.
Will the public accept new nuclear power plants? No one knows for sure, but the industry and DOE are also working quietly on a major public information program that reaches all the way to how to select and ``sell'' specific sites.
Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's energy and global-warming program, says that nuclear power has four potential problems ``that other forms of energy production do not have - highly radioactive wastes, enormous costs, nuclear proliferation, and accidents.''
These points are, of course, hotly disputed by the nuclear industry. Congress over the years has passed a large body of laws regulating the industry in all of these areas, and two federal agencies - the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and DOE - work closely with the industry to see that the laws, and related regulations, are complied with.
The new generation of nuclear plants are claimed to increase safety, depending on the models, by a factor ranging from 10 to 100 over the current first-generation plants.