The nation's nuclear power plants -- many of them still in their teens -- are showing dangerous signs of aging. But the nuclear doctors in Washington don't want to sign any death warrants yet. They're too busy attaching life-support systems.
Perhaps never before has the nuclear power industry enjoyed such an alliance of nuclear advocates in positions of power in Washington. Kenneth M. Carr, head of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is a former commanding officer of a nuclear submarine. Energy Secretary James D. Watkins also came up through the ranks in the nuclear Navy to be chief of naval operations.
Watkins is likely to be even more vocal about nuclear power in light of the Persian Gulf crisis. Energy Department insiders told our associate Jim Lynch that Watkins "had his head handed to him" by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu for the clumsy national energy strategy he has been toying with while Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tries to corner the oil market. The most insightful advice the department has offered during the crisis has been to tell motorists to keep plenty of air in their tires.
Don't count on the White House to rein in the nuclear zealots. Sununu also is an advocate of nuclear power. And President Bush himself isn't worried about the nuclear thing. When he was asked if his appointment of Watkins meant a resurgence of the nuclear power industry, Bush reportedly exclaimed, "I hope so!"
For the first time since 1979, when Three Mile Island melted the public's enthusiasm for nuclear power, there are murmurings about adding new nuclear plants. And the Bush team is talking of extending the lifetimes of the existing nuclear plants beyond their 40-year license periods.
The Energy Department recently offered to finance two upcoming applications by private electrical companies asking to extend the operation of their nuclear power plants by another 20 years.
Not to be outdone, the NRC staff quietly proposed cutting back on its team inspections of nuclear plants, which average about six a year. Carr read the proposal and didn't like the suggestion of four inspections a year. Two is plenty, he said.
So, there's the game plan. As the nuclear plants grow brittle with age, the government cuts back on inspections and looks for ways to extend the lifetimes of the plants.
There are more than 100 nuclear power plants in the United States, each of them licensed to run for 40 years. Only three have made it to the half-way mark. Despite the fact that the oldest plants are nowhere near the end of their projected life spans, plenty of old-age problems have surfaced. Fourteen of the plants are permanently closed, and nine of those hadn't even made it to their 10th birthday.
As head of the NRC, Carr says he wants to allay public fears about nuclear power. But he clearly underestimates the depth of those fears. He told a Boston audience last month that the public really doesn't want to understand nuclear power. "Like my wife and the car. . . . She just wants to know it runs when she gets in it. . . . She doesn't want to know what makes it run."