TO GENERATE increased amounts of electricity, this country now has only two choices. It can either burn more coal or build more uranium-fueled nuclear reactors. Sometime in the next century other technologies will emerge - perhaps solar or geothermal generators. But for the next 30 years or so, this country must expect to depend on the sources that we already have. As Americans work their way toward a coherent national energy policy, it's necessary to weigh these two fuels, coal and uranium, against each other. What are the respective risks to health, safety and the natural environment?
Coal, on present evidence, is more dangerous than the present generation of nuclear reactors running on enriched uranium. Coal is also likely to be a bit more expensive than nuclear power in most parts of the country. The evidence is admirably summarized in the report published last week by a distinguished committee brought together by the Mitre Corporation with a grant from the Ford Foundation. The Mitre report argues that there is no reason for the United States to proceed in this century to build the plutonium breeder reactor. But uranium and the present commercial reactors are an altogether different story from plutonium and the breeder - and far less hazardous. Fuel policy is, above all, a weighing of hazards.
Coal smoke contains poisons that, inhaled over the years, can kill people. That truth is widely known, yet there seems to be a tendency to discount it because people have been living with it for a long time. How many lives would it cost to carry out a massive increase in coal-fired power generation? Estimates vary, just as estimates of nuclear dangers vary. But they do not vary so much that a comparison is impossible. The Mitre committee concludes that "new coal-fueled power plants meeting new source standards will probably exact a considerably higher cost in life and health than new nuclear plants."
Large increases in coal consumption throughout the country would also probably affect the weather. Burning coal (or anything else) produces carbon dioxide, and there are already indications that humanity is burning fossil fuel fast enough to tip the natural balances in the atmosphere. The impact on the climate cannot be predicted accurately - and that's another reason for caution.
But certainly the list of imponderables also includes the chances of serious nuclear accidents. Mankind's experience with reactors has been very brief, and any calculation of danger has to be based on extrapolation rather than experience. Precisely because the uncertainities are very great, in coal as well as in nuclear generation, the Mitre committee wisely counsels using both. Nuclear energy will not be indispensable to this country for many decades, it argues. But a cautious and steady expansion of the reactor system would offer a valuable kind of insurance against unexpectedly severe consequences of greatly increased coal use.
There is one crucial point that the Mitre report does not directly address: How much electric power will the country need? Most of the power companies currently expect demand to rise about 5.5 per cent a year. That would mean more than trebling the country's generating capacity by the end of the century - requiring a truly awesome expansion of both coal and nuclear power. The conventional view is that any great reduction below that rate would jeorpadize the nation's economic growth. But that's not necessarily true, if conservation is carried out with careful thought and preparation. The public issue is not just how to balance coal against nuclear power. First of all, it's deciding how much of either the country wants - with all of the risks and penalties that will inevitably accompany either. That's a question for President Carter and Congress, to be answered in the energy policy that they must hammer out this year.