We’ve got lite beer and lite frozen dinners. Now the nuclear power industry wants to give us lite nukes to chill and microwave it all.

Westinghouse and General Electric were recently awarded $50 million each by the federal Department of Energy to design a new nuclear reactor, which the nuclear industry believes will usher in the second nuclear age. The industry has a dream that by the year 2000 leaner, simpler power plants will be sprouting up everywhere–a vision fueled by projections that certain boom areas of the country are running low on reserves and will need more power in the 90s, and by a presumption that nuclear power is an environmentally safe alternative. Industry spokesmen are flinging environmentalists’ concerns back in their faces, pointing out that nuclear power plants, unlike coal-fired plants, do not release the carbon dioxide that contributes to acid rain and global warming.

But opponents of nuclear energy claim the industry is trying to sell us on one benefit of nuclear power while ignoring its costs. There is, they say, the continuing possibility of an accident releasing dangerous amounts of radiation. In addition, we’re already waist deep in nuclear waste that we don’t know how to store safely. And, something that ought to trouble utilities, the financial cost of nuclear power has never been predictable, to say the least.

Proponents of nuclear power say they want another chance to build plants safely and more economically. “I think the nuclear business has learned from, I’ll call them, mistakes,” says Brian McIntyre, a licensing manager at Westinghouse, the world’s leading nuclear-energy business, having designed and supplied part of 55 of the working plants in the U.S. and more than 100 worldwide. “From things that have gone wrong, from Three Mile Island. We’ve gone back through and done an about-face, and looked at things that were too complex. We have been able to take advantage of things we could have done better.”

Opponents say if you step in a ditch once, why step in it again. Robert Pollard, of the Union of Concerned Scientists and coauthor of the book Safety Second, says, “With the discussions of the new nuclear designs, we’re having almost an instant replay of the promises that were made by reactor manufacturers and the federal government in the late 60s and early 70s. Promises which not only never were kept, but had no chance of being kept. The talk of advanced reactors strikes me as more salesmanship than science.” He says a new nuclear age will happen only if government forces it down our throats.

It’s clearly going to be a long struggle.

The pioneers of the first era of nuclear power–from 1957, when the first plant was built, to 1979, when Three Mile Island caused an industry meltdown–saw 1,000 plants running in the United States by the year 2000. They had hoped that by now nuclear power would be our primary source of electrical generation. Instead, there are 110 nuclear plants working and 4 under construction. Every order for a nuclear power plant since 1974 has been canceled. Yet nuclear power does account for 20 percent of generation; coal accounts for 58 percent and oil, hydro, gas, wind, and solar for the rest.

“What happened in the 70s and 80s,” says Scott Peters of the U.S. Council on Energy Awareness, “is that whole picture was thrown into a tilt by the oil embargo.” When the embargo hit in the early 70s, utilities had ordered a large number of plants–some coal, some oil, some nuclear–and then suddenly discovered that the increase in the demand for electricity dropped from 7 percent a year to virtually nothing. Utilities that invested in nuclear power during the 70s found themselves in deep trouble. The promise of nuclear energy had been that the plants would be more expensive to build than traditional coal-fired plants because of their massive structures, but much cheaper to run because of their less expensive fuel. When the energy demand plummeted, utilities were faced with the choice of canceling orders or riding out the energy crisis by stretching out construction of nuclear plants until the demand increased again. Orders for more than 100 plants were canceled in the 70s and 80s. The companies that went on with their plants suffered disastrous financial consequences. Costs ran up considerably as a result of double-digit interest rates and double-digit inflation, not to mention the additional safety regulations instituted in the late 70s.

Commonwealth Edison, for instance, got permission in 1975 to build Braidwood I and II for a cost of around $1 billion. Both plants were to be finished by 1982, but Braidwood I wasn’t completed until 1987, Braidwood II not until 1988. The total bill was more than $5 billion–nearly five times the original estimate.

The Shoreham plant on Long Island took ten years to build at a cost of $5.3 billion–four times the original budget–but it appears the facility will never operate. Federal taxpayers, along with the investors and local customers, are paying for the losses. The construction of the New Hampshire Seabrook plant sent its investor, Public Service of New Hampshire, into bankruptcy because of cost overruns and the plant’s failure to go on-line–utilities can only pass along rate increases after a plant is on-line. Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Light estimated in the late 70s that the Perry plant in Ohio would cost $636 million to build. It was finally completed last year for $5.2 billion. To cover the cost of the Perry and Beaver Valley II plants, Duquesne Light was granted permission last year to raise its rates 28 percent over the next four years.

In 1979 a 15-cent part in a valve malfunctioned and an operator screwed up at Three Mile Island, causing the most severe accident in U.S. history. It further mobilized antinuclear forces and led to more plant cancellations and much more stringent and costly regulations from the embattled Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

TMI also showed how difficult it is for experts to gauge the effects of a meltdown. Ten years after the incident debate still rages over exactly why it happened, how much radiation was released (no measurements of radiation were taken until 48 hours after the accident), and whether people were harmed. It has never been clear what settlements were made between General Public Utilities and the residents. “There have been a few hundred lawsuits that have been settled with the utility and local residents,” says Ken Bossong, who works for Critical Mass, the Ralph Nader group formed in 1974. “And one of the terms is that they did not reveal the nature of the settlements.” He also says that any health problems aren’t likely to be known for another 10 to 20 years, the latency period of most cancers due to radiation exposure.

Other horror stories include a near meltdown at the Davis-Besse plant in Toledo in 1985, the shutting down of California’s Rancho Seco plant because a valve had not been lubricated in 11 years, and the closing of Philadelphia’s Peach Bottom plant after operators were found asleep at the controls. “Nuclear power in this country does not have a good safety record, notwithstanding what the Council for Energy Awareness maintains,” Bossong says. “Over the past ten years since the TMI accident, there have been approximately 34,000 mishaps reported to the NRC, ranging from relatively minor to major accidents, resulting in plants being closed for an extended period of time, and involving hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs as well as release of radiation into the environment. If anything, the record’s getting worse because the existing plants are getting older.”

We can’t trust the regulators to take care of things, says Robert Pollard, who ought to know. He resigned from his position as project manager at the NRC in 1976 after working for the agency for more than six years. “I became convinced that the NRC does not have protection of the public as its first priority,” he says. “They act much like the old Atomic Energy Commission–promoting nuclear power first and worrying about safety of the public and disposal of waste somewhere down on their priority list.”

Given the industry’s track record, is a new wave of orders possible? Experts such as Pollard say no, and even Brian McIntyre of Westinghouse admits, “The next nuclear plant’s going to be a tough sell. I don’t care if it’s an AP600 or something that we’ve built three or four other times.”

The AP600 is an “advanced passive” 600-megawatt nuclear plant being designed by Westinghouse. General Electric is working on the SBWR, its version of the standard nuclear reactor for the 90s. In getting their DOE design grants, the two companies beat out Babcock & Wilcox, the builders of TMI, and Combustion Engineering.

Working with design standards set by the Engineering Power Research Institute (EPRI), Westinghouse recently sent plans for the AP600 to the NRC for approval. The company hopes the design will be certified by 1994 and that they can have the first plant on-line by the year 2000.

Like any coal, oil, gas, or nuclear plant, the AP600 is a massive water heater. The core, where controlled explosions take place, heats the water, the water creates steam, and the pressurized steam spins a turbine generator at the enormous speed needed to create electricity.

But Westinghouse says this light-water reactor will be smaller than those we’ve seen in the past. Westinghouse may be about to sell a 1300-megawatt plant to Japan, but its U.S. strategy is to build smaller plants and more of them, so that if one goes down, there are backups to prevent service interruptions.

The design of the AP600 is also simpler. It has an emergency cooling system that uses the force of gravity to move water through it–the source of its “passive” label; the plant would require less piping, 60 percent fewer valves, and 50 percent fewer pumps and heat exchangers. Most important, Westinghouse promises that the plant’s “passive” qualities would essentially eliminate the need for operator intervention in an accident. “There are still people who operate the plant,” Brian McIntyre says. “And they are still going to have to look at something and say, ‘That is not working quite the way we would like it to work.’ All the artificial intelligence in the world doesn’t replace something that complex.”

According to Karl Stahlkopf of the EPRI, which matched the DOE’s $50-million design grant, “You look at Chernobyl and TMI-2, and there is one common thread between those two accidents: an operator made a mistake because he was under pressure and he did the wrong thing.” Studies do show that 70 percent of nuclear-power accidents are caused by human rather than technological error. A former Westinghouse physicist theorizes that one problem with nuclear power plants is that they are built in remote areas, where qualified people do not care to live and work.

The advantage of the passive design, Westinghouse claims, is that the core cannot overheat, and in an accident the operators would have days rather than hours to respond. “The same concepts are brought in with the AP600 and its competitor, the SBWR from GE,” says Stahlkopf. “Using the laws of nature–gravity, natural circulation, and stored energy–we can shut a plant down and keep it shut down.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists has recommended that if nuclear plants are going to be built, as a minimum they should have a standard design. In the past, McIntyre says, all nuclear plants were built differently, and designs were even altered during construction. “We offered so many plant designs and options that no two plants are alike. And it’s kind of a problem. How do you maintain it? If something goes wrong with this one, what does it tell you about the other one? The French learned that lesson quicker than we did. They built two plants, they worked OK. They built two more, and they didn’t work so hot. So they said, “Hmm, let’s do this right.’ They figured out what the design should be. Now they stamp those things out like cookie cutters.”

Westinghouse’s new standard design will also allow its contractor, Avondale Industries, to build a plant in a controlled factory setting and then ship it to a site. It can be yours, they estimate, for a little more than $1 billion.

McIntyre says the design is everything the NRC and EPRI have ever wanted to see in a nuclear power plant. “We’re hearing from them what features they would like to see. We’ve said, scout’s honor, we will follow these features, as ludicrous as they may seem at times. They have this list. We’re building a plant that meets all those requirements. The NRC is reviewing it. They will probably say [they] want changes in it, realistically speaking, and we will complete all the design and analysis by the middle of 1992.”

After the new designs are approved, the nuclear industry is banking on the new one-step licensing process, passed by the NRC in April 1989, creating an incentive to build. In the past utilities have been forced to obtain a construction license to build the plant and then another license to run it. Plants like Seabrook got caught in between. One-step licensing guarantees the utility that it can operate the plant, so long as no one can prove it was not built to specifications.

That means the public can oppose the idea of a plant only at site hearings–not at safety hearings. “People can come up and say, ‘This was not built properly,'” McIntyre says. “Not, ‘I know you built this, but I really don’t like it here.’ That person had their chance.”

With all the money being spent on designs and PR brochures, you’d think the nuclear industry really would build these plants. But as the NRC wrestles with the concept of gravity, antinuclear groups, which have shut plants down before, are putting on the gloves. Robert Pollard says, “I think people ought to observe that no salesman of any product ever tells potential customers about any defects in what they’re trying to sell. This advanced Westinghouse plant is fundamentally not much different from the existing plants in terms of its safety–even granted the assumption that it’s twice as safe as what they sold in the past. What that means is that if you build twice as many of them, you’re right back to the same probability of a major accident.”

But even if these new reactors came with a 100 percent safety guarantee, there would still be the question of what to do with the waste. Every year one-third of the plant’s core–tons of spent fuel–must be replaced. Each plant is now storing this waste on-site, waiting for the government to find a permanent waste repository. It’s been more than 40 years since the government concluded that private industry could not be responsible for the permanent burial of high-level waste. Engineers claim the technology is there, but the problem is political: what congressman is going to go back to his home state and say, “Let’s put a nuclear waste dump in our backyard.” The lack of a solution continues to add to the cost and complexity of operating a plant. According to Phil Garon of the DOE’s Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, some high-level waste is now being transported from one plant to another for storage.

Scott Peters, of the U.S. Council on Energy Awareness, says, “We have what amounts to temporary waste storage right inside the plant. Inside the containment dome is a spent-fuel pool. In the original design it was thought we would hold that spent fuel for two or three years and then ship it off to a waste-disposal area. You would keep cycling the new spent fuel in and take the old out. That hasn’t happened because there hasn’t been a final waste repository, and it doesn’t look like there will be until the year 2003, or 4, or 5.”

Congress, which had been considering whether to allow continued site research in Washington, Texas, and Nevada, recently moved to limit research to the Yucca Mountains in politically weak Nevada. Due to the radioactive life of high-level nuclear waste, the law states that it must be safely stored for at least 10,000 years. Yet geologists have discovered that volcanic and seismic activity is possible in the area. A geologist recently claimed in Scientific American that there was a volcano in the Nevada mountains just 5,000 years ago. The DOE’s Garon says, “There’s no guarantee it will be in Nevada. It’s going to take five to seven years to determine if it’s stable.”

If the DOE decide the area is stable, they must still get licensing and approval from Congress and the state of Nevada. “The people in Nevada who have been singled out–politically, not on a scientific basis–don’t particularly care if the waste is coming from an unsafe reactor or a safe reactor,” says Pollard. “They don’t want it.”

Despite the unresolved waste issue, Westinghouse, GE, the DOE, and pronuclear organizations are moving blithely forward, fully expecting utilities to start ordering the new nuclear plants in the next several years. They project a rising demand for energy now that portions of the U.S. are occasionally falling below a 20 percent reserve margin of energy.

Commonwealth Edison, which now has seven nuclear plants and a higher percentage of nuclear capacity than any other utility in the country, apparently has no interest in buying one of the new reactors right now, though the company is excited about the new passive designs, according to spokesman Debbie Vestal. She says the utility has plenty of power to meet area needs into the next century. Indeed it does. Com Ed, which had plenty of excess capacity when it proposed building Braidwood I and II, still has huge reserves. And we all pay for that surplus power; Com Ed’s rates are among the highest in the U.S.

But in areas without such reserves, a shutdown of a major plant–coal, oil, nuclear, hydro, whatever–could cause power outages like the one that hit the east coast about 15 years ago. That incident and the many brownouts there in the past few years led three major utilities to found the New England Power Pool (NEPOOL) to share power when necessary. One of them, Northeast Utilities of Connecticut, is above the 20 percent margin and can comfortably supply its customers. But its spokesman Anthony Castagno explains that when NEPOOL is short, so is Hartford. Northeast Utilities now operates three nuclear power plants–Millstone I, II, and III. Castagno says they are all operating safely and economically and the cost of nuclear fuel is about 0.9 cents per kilowatt compared to 2.7 cents per kilowatt for coal.

But NEPOOL is not looking to add more nuclear plants to solve its energy needs. Millstone III took nearly ten years to build. “We got the construction permit in ’74 and began operation in ’76,” says Castagno. “It took until ’86 to get on-line. And as nuke plants go these days, that’s a good schedule.”

New Hampshire’s Seabrook plant, which Northeast Utilities just took over and which will put NEPOOL in great shape, was just granted its license to operate, though the decision will be appealed in federal court. Construction on the plant began in the 70s, but voters opposed it. Public Service of New Hampshire, which owned it, went bankrupt in 1988 when the state utility commission prohibited a rate increase to cover construction costs. The plant has cost $6.5 billion so far–12 times the original estimate.

The staggering cost of Seabrook has pushed NEPOOL to look at alternatives like hydro for their future needs. Castagno doesn’t think any company in NEPOOL is now interested in investing in a nuclear plant. “We’re the largest company, and we’re not even willing to take that kind of risk. Even though the economy is running better, interest rates would still be something like 10 percent and the utility that builds it finances it. No utility is willing to take that risk.”

EPRI’s Karl Stahlkopf contends that until we find a better source, energy is going to come with risks. “No intelligent engineer is going to tell you that something is risk free. There is no free lunch. There is risk involved in everything from walking down the hall and getting a cup of coffee to flying to eating carrots.”

It’s certainly clear that burning coal is not a good risk. The sulfur emissions lead to thousands of deaths annually from cancer and lung disease, accidents routinely kill miners, strip-mining pillages the land, and the release of carbon dioxide contributes to acid rain and the greenhouse effect. Environmentalists have lobbied for tougher clean-air laws, which have forced coal plants to install costly scrubbers, which could make coal plants more expensive to build and operate than the new nuclear plants–assuming their price tag holds.

The hard-line pronuclear people say we have to decide what form of energy we want to meet our needs. With nearly all the possible hydro sites tapped and with solar still expensive and experimental, they say, the choice is coal or nuclear. “The only alternative,” says Stahlkopf, “to the production of CO2 from fossil fuels is nuclear power.”

Robert Pollard says the environmental argument is just another hard sell. “In the past, in the 60s and 70s, the slogan was ‘We need nuclear energy to save us from OPEC.’ It wasn’t true, never was true. Less than 5 percent of the oil consumed in this country is used to generate electricity. So, no way nuclear power could help us with oil. The greenhouse effect? If you look at worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide, electrical generation in the United States contributes roughly 7 percent of the worldwide CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide is about half of the gases that are causing the greenhouse effect. Thus, if we got all of our electricity from nuclear power plants, that would help solve 3.5 percent of the global-warming problem.”

Nuclear opponents conclude that if you want to cut down the need for nuclear power plants, then cut down the need for electricity. “Energy demand is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Ken Bossong says. “It is a function of political decisions, not of technology. And energy demand will increase if we decide not to invest in conservation and to instead invest in new generating plants.” If we must build, he and Critical Mass favor cogeneration systems, natural-gas systems, or small-scale renewable systems, such as wind farms and solar-thermal and geothermal plants.

As with most modern messes, some of the burden belongs to the people pushing the buttons on their blenders, TVs, and microwaves–that’s all of us. As a nation we’re doing better. Anthony Castagno, of Northeast Utilities, says that last year utilities spent $1 billion on energy conservation. That effort included everything from pleas to consumers to cut back to the promotion of high-efficiency light bulbs. In some places–including Chicago, as has been well reported in these pages–the utilities’ conservation efforts have been halfhearted at best. Even so, Castagno estimates demand was reduced by 21,000 megawatts nationwide–the equivalent of 21 nuclear plants.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.