Questioning the Need for Nuclear Power
With the approaching April 20 release date for President Carter’s major energy plan, James Schlesinger, his energy chief, remains a strong nuclear power booster. This position is not in accord with either the tone or the direction of Carter’s repeated criticism and downgrading of nuclear power during the campaign months. Calling nuclear power a “last resort” source of energy, Carter pledged to “make every effort to keep that dependence to a minimum.” He repeatedly stressed that this country wastes over half its energy and that energy efficiency was the top priority.
Now comes Schlesinger who defines “last resort” as a substantial increase in the number of nuclear plants that are to pockmark the country with their potentially deadly cargo of intensely radioactive materials. He expects Carter to rely on a doubling of the plants from the present 62 to about 120 by 1985 and plan for over 500 plants by the year 2000.
Schlesinger, formerly chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission under President Nixon, is preparing a strategy of reducing the breeder reactor program and postponing the reprocessing of plutonium. Both are technically troubled programs. Even their advocates are backtracking due to the enormous taxpayer burdens and poor economics of these undertakings. Plutonium recycling is also getting the red light because of its linkage with the spread of nuclear weapons abroad.
INDUSTRY DOESN’T HAVE much, money in either the breeder or reprocess-IN programs. But it does have over a hundred billion dollars in the nuclear fission plants and manufacturing facilities.
This fact is of central significance in understanding Schlesinger. He seems unwilling, in his new post, to stand up to the Westinghouses of the nuclear establishment. His continued advocacy of nuclear fission simply cannot withstand analysis. It can be explained only as a concession to the economic and political might of the industry.
Schlesinger could use more straightforward counsel. His advisers know the crumbling economic and technical realities of nuclear fission, the widening opposition by scientists and the doubts plaguing the industry. They have many studies and examples showing the ample substitutability for nuclear of energy conservation and multiple forms of solar.
His close associate, Jack O’Leary, now head of the Federal Energy Administration, believes that dreaded nuclear meltdown accidents will occur in this country. He also does not think the utilities can construct many more nuclear plants anyway.
David Freeman, another of Schlesinger’s key advisers, could be more candid on the disabilities of nuclear power. But he wants President Carter to appoint him as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is a large builder of nuclear power plants.
SCHLESINGER IS clearly out of touch with what is happening around the country and inside the dissension-racked
Nuclear Regulatory Commission when he tells a Senate committee that there are “exaggerated concerns over the safety of nuclear power plants” and that he expects “public safety concerns over nuclear power to diminish.”
Citizen opposition to nuclear power is not only spreading in this country but also abroad. Court decisions in West Germany have virtually halted nuclear power construction there and demonstrations involving 10,000 protesting citizens are occurring. In France, Sweden and Japan the outcry is informed and spreading.
Cancellations and deferrals of nuclear plants by utilities now exceed one hundred because of lower electricity demand projections, surging costs, and poor reliability.
One solid study after another has documented serious, unresolved safety problems and the soaring costs of uranium, construction and waste disposal. Numerous other studies, including one completed in draft form by a National Academy of Science panel that President Carter should read personally, show the enormous energy efficiencies that can make nuclear electricity unnecessary. A report just issued by the Worldwatch Institute concludes that the U.S. can move rapidly into energy from sunlight, the wind, running water, and the burning of organic matter.
Mr. Schlesinger would do well to ask himself three hard questions before April 20th. Why is nuclear power needed at all? Can it be controlled perfectly now and for the thousands of years of its persistent radioactive wastes? And who can afford to pay the enormous direct and indirect costs of nuclear electricity?