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A Solar, Nuclear Future

THE celebration of Earth Day is over, but its enduring appeal reflects a shift in values for most Americans. We want better job opportunities and living standards, and a cleaner, healthier environment. Fifty years ago, these two goals were linked directly with electrification from urban to rural areas. That also was the first great environment leap. Cheap power from larger plants replaced direct burning of fuels in homes and factories, allowing pollution control at a single source.

Today the strong role of electric power in economic growth and environmental quality is still evident. The reason is massive use of electronic devices, from computers in the home to electro-technology in industry. Nearly 36 percent of our total energy goes to make electricity. Virtually all our energy resources can be used best as electricity.

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Electricity's major role is not at issue - only what energy sources will best ensure an adequate supply and promote environmental quality. A recent national survey asked Americans to identify the energy resources they thought would be used most in 10 years. The odds-on choices were solar and nuclear power - both clean-burning, almost inexhaustible energy resources.

Solar. President Carter's promise of solar energy contributing 20 percent of the nation's energy mix by the year 2000 is a distant memory. Last year solar accounted for about one-tenth of 1 percent of our energy. The reasons include the fall in oil prices that dampened solar investment and research, and a cut of 85 percent in government tax credits and loans in 10 years.

Solar also suffers from a gap in public expectations and from its high cost. Photovoltaic systems, which turn sunlight directly into electricity, cost $15,000 per kilowatt (kw), compared to $2,500 per kw at Arizona's Palo Verde Nuclear Plant, for example. What's more, solar takes 30 times more land per unit of power delivered than nuclear.

Some progress is being made, principally because of solar's environmental benefits. Southern California Edison has 275 megawatts (mw) of solar electric on line and is planning 300 mw more. The top developer of solar electric, Los Angeles-based LUZ International Ltd., expects to have 680 mw on line in California by 1994, about half the size of one of Palo Verde's three units. A serious limitation of reliance on solar for a large share of total electric-power needs is the requirement for storage capacity to assure all-day, every-day reliability.

Environmental advantages also have spurred the Department of Energy (DOE) to step up its solar R&D program, including supporting a new research center in Golden, Colo. And the research arm of the utility industry, the Electric Power Research Institute, has carried out extensive solar research for years. Solar advocates are encouraged, as they should be, because lower costs and innovation could bring solar power within reach of larger numbers of customers.

Nuclear power. Nuclear is gaining public support because it's already an advanced technology with significant environmental and economic advantages. It supplies about 20 percent of the nation's electricity, second only to coal. The 112 US nuclear plants also are saving about 1 million barrels of oil every day.

Advanced reactors developed over the past decade are safer and can be built at a fraction of the cost of today's plants. Using standard designs, new plants can be built in modules and assembled at a construction site at costs of about $1,800 per kilowatt.

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Yet, the most powerful argument for nuclear power is its environmental advantages in view of the ``greenhouse'' effect and acid-rain concerns. For example, France now gets 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear. Since the late 1970s, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide from power plants have been virtually eliminated, and particulates cut from 77,000 tons to 1,900 tons. Here in the US, nuclear power is responsible for a 5 million ton cut in sulfur dioxide. That's about half the goal of the acid rain bill now before Congress.

Of course any endorsement of nuclear energy on the basis of its environmental pluses must also examine potential negative aspects - notably, the disposal of nuclear waste. The selection of the waste disposal technology and site is largely a political process, and the issue has become so political no selection has been made.

Interestingly this is not a political action which requires an outlay of federal revenue. For years the nuclear generating utilities have been paying into the nuclear waste disposal fund established by Congress specifically for this purpose. The major waste management problem is the inability of the selection process to select.

There are no easy answers to energy and environmental policy, and for the foreseeable future we need to go with our strengths. Coal, especially with new clean technologies, will play a major role. Nuclear is ready for another generation of service to the nation with advanced reactors. Reforms are needed to create a financial and regulatory climate for new plant investment. A policy commitment also is needed to boost solar's technical performance and lower costs to consumers. Earth Day could well mark the beginning of a transition to a nuclear and solar base in the next century.

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