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Nuclear industry's upbeat tone - more hope than substance

Here's an offbeat vacation tip - visit a nuclear power plant. The Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF) says it would be educational and the kids should love it. That may be true. But somehow the idea seems a sad joke. Nuclear power is hardly at the top of US popularity polls.

Nevertheless, AIF's midyear review of the industry is distinctly upbeat. While the nuclear news has not been especially favorable, AIF president Carl Walske explains it as ''the turmoil that must be expected whenever a dynamic technology transforms itself into a full-fledged industrial enterprise.''

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That may surprise holders of the $2.25 billion worth of Washington Public Power Supply System revenue bonds issued for the now-canceled nuclear Units 4 and 5. This week's default on those bonds has given the term ''whoops'' (for WPPSS) new poignancy.

The AIF cites a Department of Energy study issued in June. It projects a need for nearly double the present US electric generating capacity by 2000 AD. While US electricity production as a whole was down slightly in the first half of the year, the report notes, nuclear electricity itself was up an estimated 9 percent.

One might conclude that an opportunity is opening up for nuclear power. Not mentioned, though, is a Department of Energy report released in May showing that the nuclear power industry has canceled 45 percent of its orders for new plants since 1972. That comes to 100 reactor orders, compared with only 39 cancellations for coal-fired plants over the same period. A major reason for this retreat from the atom has been reduced power need projections over what was anticipated a decade ago.

AIF reports the completion of the St. Lucie-2 nuclear plant in Florida in the remarkably short time of six years. Mr. Walske calls it ''a sign that, with proper management and stable regulation, we can get back to at least an eight-year lead time.''

He may be right. But Consumers Power Company, for one, is unlikely to join in the jubilation. Earlier this month, the Dow Chemical Company terminated its contract to buy steam from Consumers' yet-to-be-completed Midland, Mich., nuclear plant. Dow cites interminable delay and cost escalation as reasons for pulling out.

The plant, started in 1968, won't be ready until 1985, if then. Its estimated cost has jumped from $349 million to $4.42 billion. A special steam generator at Unit 1 of the plant's 2 units was to serve Dow, the biggest customer.

AIF says it senses an improved legal and regulatory environment. For example, the Supreme Court ruled the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) need not consider psychological stress in licensing nuclear plants. It also prevented individual states from interfering with storage or transport of out-of-state radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel. In April the Nuclear Waste Policy Act came into force. This provides for a coherent development of waste storage facilities and imposes a tenth-of-a-cent surcharge on each kilowatt-hour of nuclear power to pay for it. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration has legislation before Congress to streamline licensing of nuclear plants and limit public intervention in the process.

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On the face of it, AIF is entitled to foresee more streamlined regulation and a ''dramatic turnaround in the US waste management program.'' But there is more hope than substance in that perception.

It will take time to bring waste management under adequate control. Meanwhile , many utilities wonder where they will store their spent fuel rods when space in their holding tanks runs out. For some of them, the crunch could come next year.

Likewise, streamlined regulation - if Congress grants it - won't in itself solve the accumulated problems of safety and public skepticism.

The TMI Action Plan, issued by the NRC after the Three Mile Island accident, made 347 recommendations for improving reactor safety. Only 192 of them had been carried out by the start of this year, and action is incomplete on 125, while 30 have been declared ''inactive.'' Also, by January 1981 cooling system vents that can be operated from the control room were to be in place on all reactors. They still aren't installed. Then too, all plants were to have emergency evacuation plans. The Indian Point plant in New York was almost shut down for lack of an approved plan. The NRC relented only because of the economic impact.

This is a terrible record for an industry that was supposedly shocked into action by the TMI incident. There have been difficulties. But it seems obvious that foot-dragging has been a principal factor.

Walske is right when he says ''Providence has given nuclear power a breather that has been painful in some respects, but also cathartic in others.'' But he is speaking more hopefully than factually when he adds that industry is ''using this enforced time-out productively, to position nuclear energy for its inevitable comeback.''

Certainly he must know in his heart what some members of his staff admit privately - that the US nuclear power industry remains in deep trouble. It can only ''transform itself into a full-fledged industrial enterprise'' when the nuclear utilities and reactormakers demonstrate convincingly to the public that they can manage a safe and economical business.

The Monitor's Sky Chart, which normally appears with this column, will be in tomorrow's paper.

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