Ronald Reagan's energy policies will quickly awaken the now-dormant anti-nuclear movement. Saying that the new administration is pro-nuclear is akin to noticing that kids like "Star Wars" toys. Energy Secretary Edwards' pronouncements, according to a nuclear industry lobbyist, have caused "ecstasy, joy, pleasure and euphoria" in industry circles.
Free enterprise doesn't seem to matter when it comes to nuclear power. The high priests of supply-side economics, OMB Director David Stockman and Rep. Jack Kemp, have proposed the immediate licensing of a half-dozen nuclear plants.
How does this square with the fact that the nuclear industry is government's most spoiled child, having reaped $40 billion in subsidies during the past 30 years? Or with the fact that the Price-Anderson Act limits the insurance liability for nuclear plants that the private insurers won't touch by themselves?
By Ronald Reagan's low of free enterprise, nuclear power would have suffered an economic meltdown long ago. It is "a potential time bomb that could push a company to the brink of bankruptcy overnight," says a top official of Paine, Webber, Jackson and Curtis Inc. Since 1975, cancellations of orders to nuclear plants have outrun new orders by 50 to 13. And no new plants have been ordered for nearly three years.
If this feeble and expensive energy force is going to employ our children and safeguard so many future generations, it will most certainly require what the Republicans call "a new beginning." Campaign rhetoric about free enterprise and leaner budgets will have to be suspended at the nuclear line-item. Another era of double talk and credibility gaps will have to begin for the nuclear mission to succeed.
Here is where the anti-nuclear movement may be reignited. The expectations of a permanent nuclear moratorium, created by the rallies and national reexamination of two years ago, will be dashed on the rocks of hypocrisy as new reactors are licensed and turned on. Already thousands of Californians are preparing for non-violent resistance when and if Diablo Canyon -- a $2 billion reactor sitting aside on earthquake fault line -- is turned on. The same response is likely elsewhere.
But the anti-nuclear forces will have to rely on more than demonstrations. Ronald Reagan has shown his indifference to protesters for years. The anti-nuclear movement may have more success by exploiting the economic crisis of nuclear energy.
For example, nuclear power depends heavily on the investment of billions in pension funds. How many Americans would be secure about their retirement years if they knew that their pensions were invested in Three Mile Island?
Already, several states, universities and union groups are looking for ways to disinvest their pensions from nuclear plants. The state of California, for instance, has formed an official Alternative Investment Task Force, and the managers of public employees' pensions have decided to cease investing in utilities that obtain more than one-third of their generating capacity from nuclear power.
The other avenue to ending nuclear power is through the federal budgetary process. As every other energy and social program is cut back, the subsidy to nuclear will stand out like a swollen thumb. Many legislators will be susceptible to the argument of revising or eliminating the Price-Anderson insurance subsidy, on the grounds that nuclear should stand on its own feet in the market.
It would be ironic if a coalition of anti-nuke activists, prudent pension managers and fiscal conservatives formed against nuclear power, with the president, Stockman and Kemp defending big spending and run-away federal bureaucracy. But that may yet happen in this world of political paradoxes.