A vigorous new debate is under way over the future of electric power in the United States. In particular, the nuclear-power industry has mounted an aggressive publicity campaign to win new friends and to persuade the public that nuclear power is the only certain provider of the nation's future electricity needs.
A goal of this drive is to win a reduction in the licensing and regulatory process for both nuclear and coal-fired power plants and to ease the industry's economic problems by assuring utilities that they will be able to recoup the cost of plants from the ratepayers, even if they turn out to be economic or environmental boondoggles.
Alarmed by the wholesale cancellation of nuclear plants and no new orders, the Reagan Administration has also jumped into the issue, with the President authorizing a Cabinet-level study of the future of the nuclear industry. The Administration did its best in its early years to help the industry rebound from the Three Mile Island incident, but that effort was ill-timed and notably unsuccessful.
The basis for the new industry campaign is the argument that electrical use has rebounded from the lull created by the oil crises of the 1970s and the recession of the early 1980s. Statistics do indicate that usage is increasing, but not to the extent that the nation should be scared into a power-plant building spree. Organizations like the industry-sponsored U.S. Committee for Energy Awareness tend to threaten doom unless the country goes cheerily back down the nuclear road.
In a recent address to the American Public Power Assn., Harold B. Finger, the committee president, talked as if there was no option. He dismissed alternatives as wishful scenarios.
But other organizations disagree, and deserve to be heard. Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council made a persuasive argument before the same audience that conservation and alternatives are reliable and cost-effective new sources of power. He noted that California's two major private utilities, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co., have been leaders in seeking a new energy path.
In fact, PG&E;'s latest annual report notes: "Our plans for the next 20 years call for moderating the growth in electric energy usage by continued emphasis on conservation and load management. Both are cost-effective ways to benefit customers and stockholders by stretching existing lower-cost energy supplies and lessening the need to develop costlier new ones."
Cavanagh's argument got an unexpected boost when Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel told the power agency officials that, while new supplies must be developed, conservation must be treated as a legitimate energy resource along with coal, oil, gas and uranium. "It is important that you not overstate the need," added Hodel, who was energy secretary until three months ago. "The fact is, the lights won't go out." Hodel added that he did not see electricity use rising as fast as the gross national product, as some have forecast.
The debate is a healthy and necessary one. Perhaps more nuclear plants will be needed. Perhaps a way can be found to speed up the regulatory process, prudently. Perhaps some of the safety and environmental risks of giant plants can be reduced to acceptable levels. But the nuclear-power industry will have to present a more persuasive case. In the meantime, utilities like Edison and PG&E; have demonstrated that conservation, load management and alternative sources add up to far more than wishful scenarios.