SUDDENLY it's high-stakes time once again for the US nuclear-power industry. At issue: Can nuclear power remain safe and fulfill its promise of abundant space-age energy at a cost that is competitive with other energy sources? Or will the industry continue to flounder, marked by the uncertainties, staggering debt load, and rising public concern that have characterized nuclear power in recent years?
This week alone an association of 24 rural electric cooperatives in Indiana said it is considering buying a troubled nuclear power plant - and converting it to coal-powered generation. In Michigan, a power company rejected a proposal to abandon a nuclear project - but said it is willing to cancel one of the two generating units that it has under construction. In New Hampshire, a major partner in the controversial Seabrook nuclear project agreed, under certain conditions, to scrap a second reactor - a reactor that is almost one-fourth completed.
And if all this wasn't enough for the industry, on Tuesday the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) again postponed a decision on allowing the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant to start up in California.
Given the fact that questions are still being raised about possible defects in the Diablo Canyon plant, the NRC made the right decision.
Surely, the facility should only be started up after the NRC - particularly its engineering staff - is thoroughly convinced that all safety and other technical concerns have been resolved.
The timing in all this activity involving nuclear power, is, of course, ironic. It comes just as the nation recalls the Three Mile Island accident which took place this week five years ago in 1979.
But what has happened regarding Diablo Canyon - as well as the current controversy surrounding several other planned or partially built nuclear sites - clearly underscores the urgent need for radical rethinking and restructuring within the nuclear industry itself.
* If demand for electricity picks up again, the industry should move toward greater standardization of facilities, to hold down construction and operating costs. Many within the industry are vigorously pushing standardization, thus moving away from the past practice of building customized facilities.
* As pointed out in a two-part series on nuclear power that ran in this newspaper March 1 and March 2, the industry and federal government must work together to sharply upgrade the structure and quality of the institutions that manage and police nuclear facilities.
Such an upgrading is essential if the industry is to retain public confidence. The industry must seek out and train better - and far more - managers.
* The industry should consider new and more manageable technologies, including smaller and more efficient high temperature gas reactors of about 100 megawatts in size.
The industry needs to move away from the massive and costly nuclear complexes planned during the past decade. The nuclear industry itself has already taken many overdue steps to modernize.
The industry argues that the 83 reactors now in operation are undercutting their coal and oil-fired electricity competitors in producing electricity, when all price components are taken into account. And approximately 90 percent of the requirements specified by the federal government to improve reactor safety procedures - following Three Mile Island - have been met.
The industry has worked hard to fulfill its trust.
But to fulfill its long-range potential will require a major rethinking and rededication.