Atomic Energy: On the Wane?

The atomic power industry is crumbling—financially, technically and managerially. The evidence for this condition is obvious, diverse and overwhelming. Even Wall Street and the utilities themselves recognize the problems with their actions, if not their words. The money markets are turning off this hazardous and costly mode of boiling water to produce electricity. And the utilities have canceled or postponed dozens of atomic plants without registering a single firm order in the past five years.

Ten years ago, the industry and the government estimated that by the year 2000 there would be 1,000 nuclear plants in operation. No one even expects more than 150 or 200 now and many observers doubt whether there will be as many then as there are now-72 generating plants. Soon after Three Mile Island, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Joseph Hendrie said that another such close call and that would be the end for atomic energy. Not a major meltdown, mind you, just another close call would end this 25-year, taxpayer subsidized experiment with a runaway technology.

Even the propaganda campaign to sell the alleged glories of this form of energy isn’t selling anymore, despite the spending of many millions of your con­sumer and tax dollars. The people are not buying the phony pitch; nor are they kneeling to the veiled warning that they will pay dearly if atomic energy doesn’t make it.

Recent elections a few days ago in Austin, Texas, and the State of Washington rocked the industry. Austin voters decided to end the city’s participation in the South Texas Nuclear Project. The plant’s massive cost overruns and managerial delays were at issue.

In Washington state—a major nuclear industry state—voters overwhelminingly passed an initiative that gives voters power to approve or disapprove any new spending for major energy projects. The measure was directed at five atomic power plants whose construction costs have ballooned from $4 billion to $23 billion in less than a decade. Predictions of much higher costs further aggravated the citizens who read often about mismanagement and construction defects.

Costs are soaring everywhere. One plant being constructed in upstate New York has gone from a $350 million estimate eight years ago to a range of $4 billion to $5.5 billion. Utility company executives are thrashing around trying to blame the federal regulators, but their case doesn’t appear to be con­vincing even to themselves. A recent House Govern­ment Operations Committee report also rebutted that bit of scapegoating.

If anything, the regulatory process has been too weak. In 1980, the Three Mile Island company, General Public Utilities Corp., filed a claim against the NRC for $4 billion claiming underregulation. And the NRC Special Inquiry Group Report in 1980 stated:

“We found that in the past, the NRC and the industry have done almost nothing to evaluate systematically the operation of existing reactors, pinpoint potential safety problems and eliminate them by requiring changes in design, operator procedures or control logic. The lack of any such comprehensive program constitutes, in our view, an unacceptable situation that compromises safety and that cannot be allowed to continue.”

How true. With monotonous regularity, the report of serious, unresolved safety problems come out. Brittle steel, corrosion in the piping systems, the risk of severe damage by water hammer, and on and on—hundreds of what Prof. Henry Kendall of Massachusetts Institute of Technology described as problems “urgently needing safety research.”

Both Kendall and nuclear physicist Theodore Taylor were among the experienced witnesses to testify in late October before the House Interior and Insular Affairs Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). They rejected President Reagan’s recently announced program to subsidize further the atomic power industry as useless, inefficient and, in the context of nuclear proliferation risks, dangerous. Taylor voiced the belief of many at the hearings that alternative policies should be adopted which would “stimulate vigorous local action to use energy much more efficiently and shift rapidly to as complete a dependence on renewable sources of energy as is economically possible.”

Atomic power now contributes only about three percent of the nation’s energy and has been overtaken by wood. Everywhere in the country, conservation, passive and active solar power are showing the way away from atomic power.

Yet neither Ronald Reagan nor the majority of Congress seems to be in touch with the popular preferences and hard economic and engineering evidence. The House of Representatives has just passed a measure to allow temporary operating permits for new nuclear plants before the completion of formal safety hearings. Such hearings have given community residents in the past about the only voice they have to participate in the awesome decision of building a plant where they live and work.

But the House voted the people down, 304 to 90. At the same time, the Senate voted another multi-million dollar subsidy for the costly and trouble-plagued $3.2 billion Clinch River Breeder Reactor. Since most members of Congress are out of touch with most Americans on atomic power, the consumers, who will have to pay the bills, should start being heard.

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