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Nuclear Power: Ask a Contrarian

Fortnightly Magazine - January 1 1997

the threat continues. Even if we don't use much oil to generate electricity, we can replace end uses of oil with electric power (em

even in motor vehicle transportation.

3) A global air pollution crisis is looming.

I never really appreciated what the term "air pollution" meant until I made my first trip to Czechoslovakia. The country could not afford low-sulfur coal, only a brown coal. My clothes were covered with brown soot. The very air was brown. Acid rain could be seen eating away at the public health, buildings, forests, and even cultural artifacts like statues.

Here in the United States, we've completed a quarter-century of adapting to a productive environmental ethic. Along the way nuclear power has offered the most important single option (and performer) in reducing carbon emissions in electric power production. It will continue in that role in the future. Or we risk a genuine threat to the global environment (em one that cannot be solved without a "crash" program to expand nuclear power.

4) The "Cyber Century" will drive growth in electric demand.

Last year Americans used 75 percent more electricity than they did in 1973, but only about 3 percent more energy in other forms. And that trend has only begun. As we enter the 21st century and the real Cyber Age (em an age of telecommunications, telecommuting, and instant information (em we will truly find ourselves in an era powered by and completely dependent upon electricity.

However, this need for abundant, reliable electric power comes at a challenging time. The U.S. fleet of electric power plants is aging (em the average plant in operation today is 37 years old; half our capacity is over 30 years old. Much of that capacity cannot economically meet new environmental standards. It will have to be replaced with new plants.

5) We can and will solve the institutional problems.

Despite C.W., the United States will solve the institutional problems. We have to. We can't let continuing, frustrating uncertainties about disposition of spent fuel and nuclear waste obscure our vision as we struggle to look at the long term.

Today, at last, it appears that progress is on the way. Last fall President Clinton approved the 1997 opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico. Only a few years ago, WIPP seemed as stymied as Yucca Mountain does today.

I'm convinced that over this year or the next, the United States will develop specific plans for interim spent fuel storage that will begin relieving the pressure on utilities. Progress will continue toward geologic storage at Yucca Mountain. Spent fuel will not remain the unmovable obstacle it now seems.

6) The market will revitalize nuclear power.

Do I believe that in the foreseeable future a utility executive will go before the board of directors and suggest ordering a nuclear power plant?

Probably not. Then again, that executive may have no other choice.

C.W. says that competition in electric power will sound the death knell for nuclear. I disagree. An open market will foster new options for nuclear power.