The State of Nuclear Power

CHICAGO, ILL.–George Travers of Commonwealth Edison Co.–the utility industry’s most prolific operator of nuclear plants–believes the anti-nuclear opposition in the Midwest has become more intense. He should know. His job is to represent his boss, James O’Connor, at public meetings where indignant citizens ask him hard questions. (O’Connor prefers to hobnob with Chicago’s leading politicos and tycoons.)

Throughout the farmlands, small towns and cities of northern Illinois, where seven nuclear plants are licensed and six more are under construction, the grass roots drive against nuclear power is spreading. Some of the activity is chronicled in a periodical called “No Nukes News.”

Special focus is on the disclosure that the federal government may select the General Electric facility at Morris, Ill. (49 miles southwest of Chicago) as a storage dump for high-level radioactive waste from the United States and foreign countries. Even ultra-reactionary congressman Thomas Corcoran, R-Ill., opposes this move. He has his finger to the wind. At a meeting on Feb. 27 in Morris, Undersecretary of Energy John Deutsch faced 200 very upset citizens. One of them, Warren Olson, told Deutsch to “tell everyone in Washington that Grundy County is going to fight this all the way.”

Mounting concern also is being drawn to the low-level radioactive waste dump at Sheffield (120 miles west of Chicago), which neighboring farmers and residents suspect is leaching.

Less newsworthy but even more portentous for Commonwealth Edison’s nuclear juggernaut are meetings in private homes and churches where people are learning about the dangers, costs and bungling associated with this high-risk technology. Those who come to learn today will be in the forefront of the civic movement to shut down nuclear power tomorrow.

A few days ago, Travers was asked by a Chicago resident what Commonwealth Edison would do if all its nuclear plants were shut down. Usually, the big utility predicts economic catastrophe when asked this question because it has made the Chicago area 40 percent reliant on atomic electricity. This time Travers coolly described how his utility’s massive extra generating capacity could be brought to production leaving about 2,800 megawatts to buy from other utilities.

Without even including the savings which could be secured by reducing some of the 50 percent of its electricity that Chicago, like the rest of the country, wastes, Travers showed that even in the densest nuclear thicket replacement of nuclear power is possible now. Nationally, nuclear power accounts for 12 percent of the electricity (equal to about 3 percent of the country’s energy)–hardly a point of no return for the nation.

According to the American Institute of Architects, simply applying known energy efficiency methods to old and new buildings would save, at a lower cost and with more jobs, far more electricity than the 200 nuclear plants the industry officially expects to have in operation by the year 2000.

Unofficially the utility industry has largely removed new nuclear orders from its future plans. More than 150 orders have been canceled and no firm new order has been committed in three years. Unfinished nuclear plants are being converted to coal in some states.

One year after the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident, the horrors, expenses and community antagonisms continue to worsen. Hundreds of millions of dollars and nearly 2,000 workers are involved in a four-year effort to clean up the huge quantity of radioactivity loose inside the plant and its water. Many people living nearby want the two plants never to open again. So far, the accident will cost consumers more than $2 billion, apart from any litigation claims.

Recently, I came across a description of the protective clothing required for the TMI workers. In its concreteness this list tells the difference between other electric utility accidents and one dealing with awful amounts of cancerous and gene-damaging radioactivity:

“Two-thousand workers required to complete the cleanup of the plant are anticipated to use 200,000 cloth overalls, 1 million plastic coveralls, 100,000 pairs of rubber boots, 1 million pairs of gloves, 10,000 sponge mops, 100,000 surgical caps and 1 million square feet of plastic shielding.

These items of clothing then become radioactive and must be transported to some storage facility for thousands of years. Yet another heavy present and future price to pay for atomic electricity.

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