A DRAFT of a soon-to-be-released presidential policy statement on nuclear power has been circulating for several weeks. It bypasses the industry's pressing economic woes, focuses on developing an exceedingly expensive and more dangerous new technology, and ignores nuclear power's single greatest problem, the loss of public confidence. If eventually adopted, it will make matters worse for an industry already in dismal shape.
Not a single new reactor order has been placed in four years, while there have been many cancellations. The four companies that build reactors have limped along by relying on exports and supplying parts required by new regulations imposed after Three Mile Island. They cannot continue in this way very much longer.
Utilities are discovering that it is far harder to operate reactors properly and much more expensive to build them than they had thought. Tenfold increases between estimates and actual costs are now commonplace. State power commissions are ordering investigations of lower-cost alternatives. Delays caused by citizen opposition are lengthening. These are generally not emotional 1960s-type sit-ins, but determined challenges over cost, siting, evacuation plans, waste disposal and other matters that were once the quiet province of engineers and accountants.
The administration chooses to interpret all this as being due to financial ill-health on the part of the utilities and overly cumbersome federal regulation. Each is part of the problem--but only a small part. No matter how financially strong a utility is, it will not turn to nuclear power if its directors or state regulators feel that this energy source is too costly or technologically uncertain.
Similarly, while no one would deny that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can and should speed up its licensing process and reduce duplication and delay, such changes are not likely to make much of a difference in the 10 years or so it now takes to get a nuclear plant from the drawing board to power production. Much of the delay commonly blamed on the NRC is a result of faulty or overdue parts delivery, of labor problems, of construction errors and of local citizen opposition.
When it comes to breeders and reprocessing, the administration throws its otherwise strict reliance on the marketplace to the four winds. There is no reasonable prospect that breeders will ever be economically competitive. Yet the outmoded Clinch River breeder reactor is to be completed despite the fact that, after the expenditure of $2 billion in public funds, private industry is only willing to put up less than 10 percent of the billion or two more needed to complete it.
There are three commercial reprocessing plants in this country. One is incomplete and will only be finished if the government spends several hundred million dollars. A second was finished but never run. The third reprocessed fuel from 1968-1972, was a technical and commercial failure and was abandonned by its owner, Nuclear Fuel Services. The federal government and New York state have agreed to pick up the tab for cleaning up the contaminated site. As though none of this had ever happened, the draft policy pictures reprocessing--which also has severe proliferation risks--as necessary and financially attractive. Yet it implicitly recognizes the lack of private interest by pledging to buy the resulting plutonium "to provide a stable market."
The lack of a waste disposal policy, after 30 years, is probably the greatest single cause of public antagonism to nuclear energy. The administration's plan says only that the secretary of energy, "working closely with industry," will "proceed swiftly" to build a repository for nuclear waste. This completely misses the point: what is holding up the construction of a waste site is state and local opposition to having one and a serious debate over what technical criteria such a facility should meet to be licensed bythe NRC. The plan to brush all this aside by quickly building an unlicensed facility is destined to fail. Public concern--rightly or wrongly--is too broad and too deep.
Nuclear power needs help and should get it--it is an important part of the country's energy supply-- but not the kind of help the administration appears ready to give. Things would be improved by spending research funds on designing a safer and more efficient version of current reactors, a design that could be standardized, then quickly licensed. This could be done for a fraction of what is being squandered on the breeder. No public funds should be spent directly, or indirectly, on reprocessing: nuclear power is a mature enough technology to stand on its own. Finally, the administration needs to spend the time--frustrating though it will certainly be--developing a publicly acceptable waste disposal policy. If these things are done, nuclear power's future will brighten.