Nearly 50 consumer groups called yesterday for a rapid phaseout of nuclear power, saying the industry has vastly understated costs that amount to a "ball and chain" on the economy.

Public Citizen, the self-styled consumer group founded by Ralph Nader, and related organizations in 30 states said in a report that it costs $15 billion to $21 billion per year to keep the nation's 108 nuclear power plants operating, compared to the industry's estimate of $8 billion.

The report, titled "Too Costly to Continue," concluded that the nation's energy needs could be met far less expensively through alternative fuels and improved conservation.

It said that last year, there was enough surplus generating capacity available to close 85 percent of nuclear capacity while still maintaining a 20 percent electrical reserve in every region.

Don Winston, a spokesman for the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, an industry group, said that more than 90 percent of the surplus capacity cited by the consumer groups was in the form of retired, oil-burning plants. "What we have here is a recipe for once again making ourselves terribly dependent on foreign oil," he said. "It's totally unrealistic."

-- U.S. reactors are susceptible to "long, unexpected outages" and have operated at an average of less than 60 percent of their rated capacity during 12 of the past 14 years.

-- Nuclear costs are increasing rapidly, at a pace averaging 10 percent above the inflation rate since 1970. Last year, the cost for major repairs increased by more than 30 percent.

AP-BA-11-09 1604EST