FOUR decades have passed since Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss predicted that electricity generated by nuclear power would be ``too cheap to meter.''
But over the past few years, several utilities have closed their nuclear plants prematurely because they were too expensive to operate.
Some analysts are predicting that a quarter of the 109 nuclear plants in the United States will shut down over the next decade due to increasing operation and maintenance costs.
In Texas, some antinuclear activists are hoping to accelerate that timetable. The troubled South Texas Nuclear Project, a 2,500 megawatt facility near Bay City, has been shut down for nearly a year due to recurring equipment and management problems. Operated by Houston Lighting & Power (HL&P), the $6 billion facility began generating electricity in 1988.
Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, an antinuclear consumer group, says the utility should close the plant now rather than spend more money. ``We think it's a boondoggle and will continue to cost ratepayers billions,'' Mr. Smith says. ``Shutting it down would be the cheapest way to go in the long run.''
While HL&P officials say their plant will be running again within 60 days, other plants around the country have shut down rather than pay for expensive repairs. Rancho Seco and San Onofre I in California, Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts, Fort St. Vrain in Colorado, and Trojan in Oregon have gone silent over the past four years. Rancho Seco, owned by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), powered down in June 1989 after Sacramento voters approved a referendum to close the plant.
Bob Mulholland, who managed the campaign against Rancho Seco, says the plant closed because of economics. ``In the four years prior to June of 1989, rate increases [at SMUD] went up 25 percent per year,'' he says. ``In the five years since Ranch Seco closed, total rate increases have been 2 percent.''
High costs of closing
Utilities are finding that decommissioning the plants may cost as much or more than the original construction. Portland General Electric officials expect the shutdown at Trojan to cost $420 million. The plant cost $460 million and opened in 1976. SMUD officials expect to spend $300 million to decommission Rancho Seco, which cost $350 million to build. The 330-megawatt Fort St. Vrain plant cost $224 million to build and will cost $333 million to dismantle.
Environmentalists say that escalating operation and maintenance costs, shutdown costs, and an uncertain waste disposal future should lead more utilities to close their plants early and replace them with intensive energy-efficiency measures and alternative sources of power. They point to Sacramento, where SMUD instituted an efficiency program that is now saving about 200 megawatts of energy, or about a quarter of the output from Rancho Seco. The utility also buys electricity on the spot market.
Jim Marston, head of the Texas office of the Environmental Defense Fund, says the problems at the South Texas Nuclear Project prove that renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are more viable than nuclear. ``Utilities have resisted pursuing renewable energy on the grounds that it wasn't reliable,'' he says. ``But you can't point to a single instance when the wind didn't blow or the sun didn't shine for a year. The plant in Bay City hasn't worked for a year....''
Scott Peters of the United States Council for Energy Awareness, a pro-nuclear lobbying group, agrees that many nuclear plants are closing because they have gotten too expensive. But increasing domestic demand for electricity bodes well for nuclear power, he says. ``In the future, natural gas may become more expensive or harder to get or both. With new plant designs that are cheaper and simpler to build, we think nuclear will be competitive in the future and more attractive to utilities when they need large increments of new power.''
Waste disposal problem
Robert Pollard, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists is a longtime critic of American nuclear energy facilities. ``From a business point of view, the prospects for the operation of nuclear plants are deteriorating,'' he says. The lack of approved disposal space for radioactive waste will double or triple disposal costs for many utilities, Mr. Pollard says. Utilities may soon pay up to $500 per cubic foot to get rid of their waste. He points to the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island as examples of the potential liability that can face owners of nuclear power projects.
Pollard also criticizes policies that allow utilities like HL&P to continue making money on their nuclear plants even though they aren't operating. ``It [nuclear power] wouldn't cost ratepayers more if they took a plant out of the ratebase if it isn't producing power.''
Graham Painter, a spokesman for HL&P, acknowledges that his company is making money on the facility even though it is producing no electricity. He said steam generators and turbines made by Westinghouse are causing problems and that HL&P has reached an agreement with the company to replace some of the equipment. The issue may be decided in court. Replacing the steam generators will cost $461 million.
Despite the problems, Mr. Painter says there is no reason to shut the plant down permanently. ``This plant has a 40-year operating life.... To shut this plant down would cost our customers more money and deprive them of a low-cost energy source.''
The National Energy Policy Act of 1992 makes it easier for utilities to build nuclear plants. Peters says the new rules will allow American utilities to build new facilities within a five- to six-year time span. Many nuclear plants in the US took two to three times that long before construction was completed. But American utilities have not ordered any new nuclear projects in 20 years and only two US projects are still under construction.
Meanwhile, countries in Asia are planning to invest some $160 billion in new nuclear capacity over the next 15 years. Japan is currently building nine plants. China will complete two new reactors by 2000. And Pakistan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Indonesia are planning more than a dozen new projects.