RICHARD POLLOCK and Stanley Ragone aren't speaking to one another.
Ragone is the president of the nation's eight largest electric utility, Virginia Electric and Power Co., and he is on one side of what has come to be called the great nuclear power debate.
Pollock is head of Critical Mass, the information center that gives direction to about 175 anti-nuclear groups nationwide, and he is perhaps one of the most influential people on the other side of the debate.
Not only are Pollock and Ragone not speaking, they aren't worried about the same issues. They ask questions they're sure the other side can't answer, and they respond to questions the other side didn't ask.
The great nuclear debate has ossified into a standoff in which there is alot of warning direly and viewing with alarm, and while no one would dream of questioning the motives of the opposition, both sides make it plain that the other is probably being irresponsible. The only thing that is clear is that no decision on nuclear power is in the offing, and, as the office cliche says, not to decide is to decide.
This is unfortunate. If the country is going to build enough nuclear power plants to see its energy needs through to the end of the century, it has to start yesterday and in earnest. If it is not going to do that, it has to start yesterday and in equal earnest on promoting other energy sources, whether coal, sunlight, thermal power or whatever.
The experts cannot agree on what to do, but they do agree that drift on the nuclear question is fatal. Yet drift is what we have, and drift is what bids fair to continue as long as the Stanley Ragones and the Rciahrd Pollocks of the country continue not talking to each other.
Ragone and his utility executive peers see the issue as one of supplying growing electricity demand as cheaply as possible. Pollock and his environmentalist colleagues see it as one of supplying static or declining demand as safely as possible. The basic assumptions are different; each side focuses its attack on different risks; each side brushes off the other's experts as just plain wrong. Fear of Shortages
RAGONE'S NIGHTMARE is that someday soon, perhaps in 1981, a few of his 3 million consumders are going to flip some switches to "on" and nothing will happen. That, he says, is the scenario being written right now because the electric industry is not being permitted to build enough plants.
"Lots of people are saying let's conserve energy instead of building more plants, but they don't run electrical systems," said Ragone. "Conservationists never really give you solutions. They just talk about the problems." Those who oppose nuclear power, Ragone believes, don't represent the public, receive widely disproportionate media coverage and tend to use "experts" who don't know what they're talking about.
At 52, Ragone is a rumpled, energetic and articulate veteran of 30 years at Vepco, where he came up through the ranks as an engineer. His fingernails are chewed to the nub, reflecting the pressures on a man who presides over a $1.3 billion a year operation. He is evasive, charming and blunt by turns as it suits him, appearing rather to relish his reputation as a bit more outspoken than his peers always find comfortable.
Ragone has faith in nuclear power. It is best, he says, because it uses the cheapest fuel around and because it is "environmentally benign": There is virtually no dust, carbon dioxide or other emission, and the wastes take up much less space than those of coal. The dangers of significant radiation leakage are tiny, those of disaster infinitesimal, he says, much less than the known dangers of black lung disease from coal mining, fire from oil spills, explosions from gas.
But it now takes 10 to 12 years to get a nuclear plant from proposal to opening day. It takes 5 to 10 years to bring a coal or oil plant on line, and there have been 116 planned power stations of all types cancelled or deferred in the last two years, according to the Edison Electric Institute, the industry trade association.
Although some of that was because demand fell off in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo, demand continues to grow at a steady 5 1/2 per cent per eyar nationwide - and probably ought to keep rising, Rogone believes. "When you cut back on power use, industry goes first and that means jobs . . . The conservationists, they've already got theirs. They overlook the economic needs. They say wait for wind and solar power, but what do the poor people do in the meantime?"
Ragone tell stories of opponents to his projects who live in elegant, grassy aeries and clip coupons for a living. Most of the plant cancellations, according to the EEI, were because the thicket of regulations and judicial delays environmentalists have set up around the licensing process. Ragone and his peers make it clear that if only the Richard Pollocks of the country would leave them alone, utilities could handle the energy crisis just fine. Fear of Holocaust
RICHARD POLLOCK dismisses most of the preceding as a smokescreen. "Utilities promote nuclear power because they make money on it," he said. "If you were guaranteed a 10 per cent profit on either a $500,000 plant or a $2 million plant, which would you choose?"
Engineers and utility executives are blind to the limits of technology and the certainty of human error, wrong on their electricity demand forecasts and rolling like juggernauts toward controlling society through its electric umbilical cord, Pollock believes.
His nightmare is of a core meltdown, a runaway nuclear reactor that cannot be cooled off in time to keep massive radiation from leaking into the environment. "You could say what if the plants all operated safely, if construction costs were low, if fuel costs stayed down, if there was no potential for catastrophe, would I favor [nuclear power] then? . . . Well, I say let's see all those things happen and I'll give you my answer," Pollock said.
At 26, he is just the sort of person Ragone complains about. Two years ago he was a free-lance reporter "for liberal, progressive magazines," as he called them, and knew nothing whatever about nuclear power until consumer advocate Ralph Nader asked him to look into it. When he did, he was appalled.
"Year after year utilities tell the public they'll save money with these new power schemes and year after year the bills go out of sight," he said. Nuclear plants have not operated anywhere near as efficiently as their backers said they would, mostly because of recurrent technical problems that make Pollock nervous.
"These people have tremendous faith, almost a religious faith, in technology. They look at everything in roentgens and gigawatts and begin to forget that there are people living out there with social problems and financial worries, an axe to grind, maybe against the boss . . .
"Sure, there are kooks and crazies on our side who raise ridiculous kinds of concerns, and sure it drives the technicians up the wall. But that doesn't mean there is not a serious case to be made . . . Utilities have to realize they are a public service first and a business second."
Where Ragone dismisses the fears of nuclear disaster as unrealistic, Pollock dismisses the fear of inadequate electricity the same way."People are cutting back already. The utilities have never been right in their predictions."
He forecasts a future electricity demand growth rate of 1 to 2 per cent per year nationwide, "maybe lower if [President] Carter really embarks on a conservation plan." And it won't mean industry layoffs either, he said: $1 million invested in a nuclear power plant produces 44 jobs, while $1 million invested conservation produces 6,000 jobs making insulation materials and installing them.
Critical Mass has a fulltime staff of six writer-researchers and uses lobbyists, lawyers, technical advisers and scientists paid for by Ralph Nader's umbrella group Public Citizen. The doors and walls of the rabbit warren building on Capitol Hill sport "No Nukes!" and antiwar posters, while clippings, files, reports and studies obscure every flat surface in the best public-interest group style. A stained-glass madonna and child incongruously survey the clutter from one office window, a relic of the building's days as a convent.
It is all very homey and as commonplace, Pollock said, as the people who oppose nuclear power. Public opinion polls showing continual majorities in favor of nuclear power or individual plants "are like the early Vietnam war polls," he said. "Nuclear power has been shrouded in mystery and technical terms. As the public gets familiar with the issues, we'll see a decidedly negative turn." Spreading Their Fears
HAVING GIVEN UP on convincing the opposition, the Pollocks and the Ragones of the country have both mounted major efforts to educate the rest of us. The result has been a flood of advertising and pamphlets either scaring us about the horrors of nuclear holocaust or scaring us about the horrors of inadequate electricity.
It's too bad Stanley Ragone and Richard Pollock aren't talking to each other.