With the demise of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, the United States nuclear power industry has an opportunity to build itself a better future. The $4.5 billion project (originally estimated at a mere $400 million) was done in by the same things that beset nuclear power in general - inflated costs and a climate of public distrust. Congressional refusal to provide further funds reflects a widely held perception that this project represented a misplaced research priority.
An assessment of nuclear power prospects for the 1990s, now being distributed by the Nuclear Engineering Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out that the nuclear industry has a more urgent research need. This is a need for the development of two or three reliable and economical standard reactor designs to be available in the 1990s.
Utilities are unlikely to place any new orders for nuclear plants in this decade. But the MIT study notes that slowly rising electricity demand, coupled with continuing concern about the pollution from burning coal and oil, could make nuclear power more attractive. That is, it could become attractive if unit designs are available which are inherently more reliable and less costly than today's typical US power reactor.
Unfortunately, the Department of Energy (DOE) research program has been dominated by the breeder. It has had little room for other goals except for some effort to improve the present type of power reactor. And, faced with a lack of customers, reactor manufacturers have had no incentive to fill the research gap. Now, with the breeder being phased out, there is an opportunity to give a new direction to DOE nuclear power research.
If this is to happen, however, the utilities themselves will have to supply leadership. The MIT study notes that ''it is evident that (given the present disenchantment with nuclear power), neither the traditional suppliers of nuclear plants nor the federal government will act in the absence of a clear commitment by the electric utilities'' to develop better reactors.
In fact, the utilities can no longer ignore the fact that the future of nuclear power is largely up to them. They are the buyers of the plants, and their interest is the major incentive for design improvement. And since they operate the plants, their performance does much to determine the safety of nuclear power and the public perception of that safety.
Lip service was given to a need to improve operating performance and plant construction quality after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Yet in spite of some exceptional companies, the utilities have a poor record. Incidents of neglect, incompetence, and malfeasance continue to surface.
Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Victor Gilinsky recently told of an unnamed utility that wanted to start up a nuclear plant next year with 31 operators, none of whom had ever held a commercial license. Earlier this month, former workers at the construction site of the Zimmer nuclear plant in Ohio told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that records were falsified and poor construction continues to be covered up there. This latest complaint followed a few days after an NRC administrative judge had faulted the agency itself for laxity in investigating early reports of misconduct at Zimmer and elsewhere. And last week a grand jury indictment charged the operators of the Three Mile Island plant with violating provisions of their operating license and breaking federal law.
While the regulators do need to improve their own performance, in matters of safety and quality control the buck stops with the utilities and the contractors they hire and supervise. NRC chairman Nunzio J. Palladino calls their poor record a cloud on the nuclear future. He adds, ''It is not enough for all but a few to do a good job, because failure in just one unit reflects adversely on the entire industry.''
Many experts believe that the fragmentation of the industry is partly to blame. The US now has 84 nuclear power plants licensed to operate. Another 56 units are under construction (with 4 more on order). These plants are owned by 58 utilities, of which 29 own just one reactor and 14 own only two. Calling this fragmentation the industry's ''fundamental weakness,'' Gilinsky says it makes regulation difficult. He notes, ''It is only a slight exaggeration to say that we get nearly 60 different solutions to every safety problem.'' He suggests that safety standards could be better maintained - and better regulated - if there were a few large operating companies which ran nuclear plants for their utility owners. These larger companies could employ the expert staffs that nuclear plant operation demands.
The industry's fragmentation has also complicated nuclear plant design. The MIT study points out that virtually every contemporary plant is custom built, one of a kind. There has been much talk of trying to standardize nuclear plant design to improve safety and quality. This has meant trying to upgrade the present type of US power reactor. The MIT group, however, considers this to be misguided. It says that ''a fundamental cause of problems in nuclear construction and operation . . . is the extraordinary complexity of contemporary . . . designs.'' It suggests that new research be done to design smaller, more efficient reactors which could become the standard for the next decade. It urges utilities to take the lead in such research, perhaps working through consortia of several companies to spread the cost.
Admittedly, MIT's nuclear engineering faculty is, itself, fishing for research support. But there is, nonetheless, wisdom in its appeal. If utilities can indeed show leadership in stimulating such research and in improving safety, the DOE may well strengthen its research in this area too. Whether they like it or not, the responsibility for the future of nuclear power in the US is largely up to the users of that power - the electric utilities.