The Nuclear Energy Risk

WASHINGTON–Charles F. Luce must be a troubled man. As Chairman of Consolidated Edison, the giant New York City utility, he is known to be a more sensitive executive than most of his industry counterparts. Now a major challenge to his sensitivity arises over the question whether his company, hitherto cautious on nuclear power, should go more heavily nuclear.

Presently, the utility has just two nuclear power plants operable at Indian Point which is 26 miles from New York City. Another plant is nearing completion. But fast mounting evidence of serious design, construction and operating problems affecting the hazards and reliability of nuclear plants around the country must be giving Mr. Luce pause.

His immediate subordinate, “Con Ed’s” president, Lewis Roddis, has been fuming over the reactor manufacturers’ sloppy workmanship and the enormous amount of time and expense it takes to put a nuclear plant back to work once it breaks down.

There are now 40 operable, but not always operating, nuclear power plants in the country. Lately, the Atomic Energy Commission has reluctantly recognized a series of hazards or deficiencies–leaks of radioactivity into the environment, fuel densification problems, hydraulic shock absorber deficiencies, emergency core cooling system defects, inadequate reliability of the emergency shutdown mechanism and so on. These are not exactly household phrases but they could be part of a sequence that could afflict many households with lethal radioactivity in the event of an accident.

Mr. Luce knows that just one big accident in one of these plants could devastate a city like New York, Chicago or Boston with deadly radioactive poisons, contaminate an area the size of Pennsylvania , require the evacuation of millions of people and destroy over $20 billion of property. Such an accident would cause untold damage to future generations.

In his reflective moments, he must worry about the risks of accidents (the Atomic Energy Commission calls them “occurrences” or “incidents”), sabotage or theft of weapons-grade material. He knows of the rapid diffusion of nuclear power materials by truck and rail through populated areas and that the controls, according to the General Accounting Office are not stringent enough. He is aware, as are all members of the nuclear establishment, of the grave and unresolved problem of safely storing hot radioactive wastes from the environment for the necessary tens of thousands of years.

More recently, stricter siting standards for nuclear plants were proposed by the AEC’s regulatory staff and privately circulated among the utilities. These proposed standards are top secret from the public because the utilities believe it would alarm citizens to learn that present nuclear plants are too close to metropolitan areas. For example, the AEC staff proposes that no new plant be built with more than 2 million people living within a 40 mile radius. Con Ed’s Indian Point plants have over 12 million people living within that radius.

Con Ed’s nuclear reliance requires in turn a reliance on the safety of other utilities’ nuclear plants as well. For should there occur one major accident, or even some more serious “near misses” than those already described by the AEC, the citizen drive against nuclear fission energy would become decisive. Already accidental spills of radioactive materials into air and water are occurring. One thousand nuclear plants, projected by the year 2000, must attain, together with transportation and storage facilities, a degree of safety perfection that has not been achieved even in space technology.

If these plants are so safe, why does federal law limit compensation to less than 2 percent of the potential damage with the taxpayer picking up most of the bill? Why won’t insurance company pools, regardless of the premium, insure more than a fraction of 1 percent of the credible risk? Why is the AEC’s regulatory staff so worried about operating hazards and poor quality control as recent documents and memoranda show them to be?

A responsible number of scientists and scientific committees here and abroad are arguing against rushing into nuclear fission when safety problems remain unsolved. Mr. Luce should read their materials and consult with them directly and not rely on one-sided staff memoranda.

Since Con Ed expects nuclear plants to supply less than 15 percent of its electricity by 1980, the Chairman might conclude that his utility should (1) prevent the massive waste of energy (recycling waste heat and burn trash), (2) revise rates to encourage thrift by large and wasteful users rather than burden small users, (3) rely on the large domestic reserves of oil which even oil companies say are now recoverable due to available technologies and higher prices and (4) support efforts to bring solar energy and geothermal energy to application over the next thirty years. Such directions, along with many other practical policies, would make Charles Luce and his associate, Lewis Roddis, businessmen who could help stop this nuclear juggernaut and start defending the future.

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