By John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E.,
As last summer drew to a close, the nation heaved a collective sigh of relief: gasoline prices were down, natural gas prices were down, electricity prices were down, and the California brownouts were over. To the public it seemed like the energy crisis was over. Unfortunately, if the public does not perceive a need to address the nation’s long-term energy needs, it becomes less likely that the President’s energy plan will have the political momentum to overcome Congress’ partisan wrangling. This is bad news for nuclear power. The industry must have public recognition of the need for new energy sources if it is to overcome fission power’s political barriers.
Only a few months ago, opposition politicians were sniping at the Administration’s energy plan for not addressing near-term problems. Now those near-term energy problems have vanished, and many seem to have forgotten that the country still must address its long-term energy future.
For example, when California took steps to make sure electricity suppliers would be paid, electricity became available. In the cockeyed economics of La-La Land, politicians thought they could get by with ignoring the connection between the cost to provide a service and the price charged. After bankrupting two of the country’s largest utilities, the state decided the taxpayers would take the next hit. As a last resort, consumers would even be asked to pay part of the cost of what they consumed. So, taxpayers/users cut back. Their conservation, along with mild weather, relieved the immediate California electricity crisis.
Basic economics further intervened in the form of the spreading nationwide economic slowdown that began a year ago. Now, it is becoming clear that the country’s economic downturn is more severe than originally forecast, with nine straight months of declining industrial production. With less production, less shipping, and fewer people working, energy use has fallen. The slowdown has now affected such energy-sensitive sectors as auto production and housing construction.
It is not yet clear what effect the tragic events of September 11 will have on either the economy or the petroleum supply. But the economic slowdown won’t last forever. History shows that stimuli, such as the recent tax cut and this year’s nine interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve, will eventually spur faster growth. In addition, the composite leading indicators have pointed upward four months in succession. Clearly, the economy will turn around sometime. And a healthy economy means more production, more jobs, and more energy use. Those who recognize this, and who also recognize the long lead time required for new energy resources, understand the need to establish new fuel supplies and new power plants now.
The nuclear industry will benefit if right reason can overcome public apathy. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) could complete its two Bellefonte units, which were 90 percent and 60 percent complete when construction was halted in 1988. TVA has estimated it could get Bellefonte I online in about five years. A unit at Watts Bar isn’t far behind, and there is a beleaguered Browns Ferry unit that could be restarted. Out West, Energy Northwest could complete WNP-1. In short, the U.S. could increase its nuclear capability quickly if the industry can muster the political will to do so.
The economics of completing mothballed nukes is another issue. TVA estimates the cost of completing their plants would make those units much more expensive than the fire-sale prices nuclear plants have commanded recently. And when the current nuclear focus is on the smaller, simpler, cheaper new designs, why would anybody spend money finishing old plants? There are two reasons: First, only the going-forward costs are important in decision-making. The only factor that matters is getting an acceptable return on the future investment. Second, time is of the essence. Although the mothballed plants will require a significant amount of time to complete, this time may be less than just the site approval process for a new plant.
So, the issue is whether or not the public and the politicians will understand the need to address long-term energy needs now, when there is no electricity crisis, and when it can be done rationally. Past experience is not encouraging in this regard. Furthermore, anti-nukes have a history of fanning fear of terrorist attacks.
Industry leaders should quit riding the coattails of the Administration’s “global warming” enemies. The President’s energy plan represents a ray of hope for the U.S. nuclear industry. Now it is time for the industry to speak out and tell the American people that there is still an energy problem, and that the Administration is addressing it properly with new supplies of fuel and electricity. Now is the time to reassert nuclear plants’ safety and security. Now is the time to make it clear that nuclear energy is not just an option: it must play a critical role in the nation’s energy future.