What Will Replace Nuclear Energy?

During several debates with representatives f the atomic power industry in the mid Seventies, I was asked what they thought was the clincher question for their side: “What would replace nuclear power?” (At that time, ten percent f electricity production was nuclear, now it is 12%.) I replied: “With several alternatives, starting first and foremost with energy conservation.” They would then smile with disbelief.
The other day I checked with the Department of Energy for the latest figures on energy conservation and was happily amazed. In 1973 the U.S. economy consumed 74.3 quadrillion BTUs of energy (oil, coal, natural gas, hydro, nuclear, etc.) In 1984, with real growth of the U.S. economy 30.7% greater than 1973, the energy consumption was 74.03 quadrillion BTUs. The comparison would be even more favorable today if the Reagan government did riot scrap energy efficiency standards both for appliances and its own government vehicle and building energy uses, and for numerous other existing programs, including legal pressure on the auto industry to keep making more gasoline efficient cars.

There is still plenty f energy waste to squeeze out of our economy. The technology of energy efficiency — that has produced buildings using one-fourth of the energy f similar sized buildings built twenty years ago — presents as exciting a potential as the technology f energy production. Passive solar — such as renewable energy architecture for homes — is a form of energy conservation or energy production — take your choice.

While the economy was growing 31% and using less energy, where is atomic power in the U.S.A.? In deep, deep trouble. Utilities have cancelled scores f nuclear plants with no firm order for a single plant in eleven years. Some large utilities are on the verge of bankruptcy or have just escaped that status by receiving state utility commission approval for large rate increases. Staggering cost overruns for nuclear plant construction are the chief causes along with serious mismanagement by utility executives. These gentlemen, long secure with their cost-plus business and friendly regulators, have been no match for the complex engineering construction projects of an inherently dangerous technology.

The staggering costs f the still non-operating Shoreham, Long Island, plant with its evacuation problems, and the unfinished Seabrook plant in New Hampshire are well known. Additionally, in recent weeks there have been these developments:

  • The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) shut down last month its last nuclear power plant, Sequoyah, because of uncertain safety conditions.

    In March the TVA shut down its giant Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in northern Alabama also due to safety questions. No one knows when they will reopen. TVA had planned to build 17 reactors. It has abandoned eight plants under construction. The remaining are closed or construction has been suspended.

  • Middle South Utilities, saddled with the crushing costs fits $3.5 billion Grand Gulf 1 nuclear plant, is teetering on bankruptcy. It wants to charge consumers for the vast cost overruns for what critics call “Grand Goof”. The state regulators in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi are resisting.
  • Kansas Gas & Electric Co. bet its company on a 47% stake in the Wolf Creek nuclear plant and its zooming costs. To avoid bankruptcy it is demanding a $371 million rate increase over five Years. This translates into a 95% hike in residential electric bills for that period. The state regulator approved a $134.6 million boost over three years. Beset by burgeoning consumer protests, state regulators are starting to require that shareholders and creditors absorb some of the risks.
  • More industrial and other large electricity users are trying to bypass utilities burdened by nuclear plants and shop around for cheaper electricity. If this trend expands, guess who is going to be required to make up the difference for the jilted electric company? The small residential ratepayer.

There is another, healthier trend underway among the states. Regulators are recognizing that the “least cost energy” approach requires utilities to do just that: find the least costly way to meet energy needs instead of building cost-plus white elephants in order to charge customers more money. At present the least cost energy usually means various kinds f energy conservation and the avoidance of hefty overcapacity that today makes customers pay for more than one electricplant to stand idle for every two that are producing.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, a megawatt saved is megawatt earned.

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