THE WAHINGTON public Power Supply System--whose acronym is appropriately pronounced "whoops"--finally canceled two of the five nuclear power plants it has been building. The cancellation of the two plants--further along than any previously canceled nuclear plants--triggered a wave of reaction on Wall Street, including the downgrading of bonds held by many of WPPSS's members.
A WPPSS director warned other utilities considering nuclear construction to "take a look at what happened here first." Similar sentiments warning of nuclear power's imminent demise because of economic and safety problems were echoed across the country. On top of this came Monday's "emergency" at an upstate New York plant where a burst pipe caused emissions of radioactive steam into the atmosphere. The story made front-page news.
Both events say a lot less about the health of the nuclear power industry than they seem to. WPPSS's problems derived largely from a combination of peculiar circumstances. The consortium, with no prior experience in nuclear construction, decided to build five plants at once, wildly overreaching itself. This initial mistake--if that is not too weak a word--was compounded by a seldom- matched talent for mismanagement. The group did not have to worry too much about cost overruns on the first three plants since these were being paid for by the federal government through the Bonneville Power Administration.
The accident at the Ginna plant also merits less attention than it has received. Radiation was released--but in negligible amounts. The plant's neighbors may have received a dose of about 3 millirems. That is about equal to nine days' exposure to the naturally occurring background radiation that bombards each of us every day of our lives.
There are serious problems with nuclear power-- problems that the industry has been far too slow in correcting--but there is also a growing tendency to exaggerate them. Many of the industry's financial problems are the result of excess electrical capacity and high interest rates and are as typical of coal- fueled utilities as of nuclear ones.
Without minimizing nuclear power's safety defects, it needs to be pointed out that in the last six weeks 31 coal miners have died. In an average year 150 die and 15,000 suffer disabling injury. The risks of coal mining are so high they have become commonplace--but the deaths and incapacitation from accidents and black lung are nonetheless tragic. The air pollution risks from coal combustion are more uncertain, but may turn out to be even greater. They include respiratory illness, cancer, acid rain and global warming from carbon dioxide accumulation. Some, or all of these may one day require far tighter pollution regulations than today's, or even global limits on the amount of fossil fuels that can be burned.
In short, death knells for nuclear power are unwarranted. The industry is an important component of the country's electrical generating capacity, and it could one day prove to be a vital one. The industry spends far too much of its time and energy chasing a silly obsession with the breeder reactor that might be useful late in the next century, instead of focusing on long overdue solutions to its safety and waste disposal problems. But the realities are important too: one American coal miner dies every other working day.