HE ADMINISTRATION'S program to revive the nuclear power industry does not, unfortunately, offer it much real help. The Department of Energy seems to assume that the industry's troubles are essentially the result of excessive and unpredictable regulation. But that hardly touches the real reasons for the industry's decline.
Power companies are not buying new reactors and are canceling many of those ordered in the past. The last time an American utility ordered a new reactor and actually proceeded with construction was in 1974.
One reason is that the utility industry now believes that future demand for power is going to be much lower than seemed probable a decade ago. Another is that the financial risks attached to nuclear power are vastly greater than those that accompany the conventional coal-burning power plant.
There has been no resolution of the issues of nuclear waste disposal. A bill to establish waste management procedures is now before the House, but no one can yet say what disposal charges will be levied on the utilities. Similarly, legislators and regulators have not yet decided who is to pay, or how, for the extremely expensive cleanup now proceeding at Three Mile Island.
In retrospect, it's clear that the federal government overestimated the ability of the electricity industry to master this demanding technology; some companies have succeeded flawlessly, but many have not. The failures have increased the demands for further regulation. Rather than regarding the regulations as the root of the industry's troubles, the administration would do better to address the reasons for the construction and operating errors that have generated the proliferation of rules.
Why bother with nuclear power at all? Why not abandon the whole concept as too expensive, too difficult to manage, too unpopular?
A well-built and well-run nuclear reactor is among the safest and cleanest of all devices for generating electricity. By comparison, coal-fired power plants, on which this country now depends for more than half of its electricity, are highly hazardous. Burning large amounts of coal creates a kind of air pollution that kills people. Every year the lives of several thousand Americans are, as the statisticians carefully put it, prematurely shortened by the pollution from coal plants' stacks. To shift more of the power load to reactors would benefit the environment and human health. But the utilities, appalled by the dire and unexpected financial risks, are backing away from the nukes. Fiddling with the regulatory requirements won't help much.