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Nuclear-power advocates see a real need for new plants by 1990s

The Subject of nuclear power, admits Carl Walske, president of Atomic Industrial Forum Inc., is a "bit dull" nowadays. "We haven't done anything much wrong for a while," he says, referring to the Three Mile Island accident that is now fading into the past.

Mr. Walske wants to revive interest in nuclear power -- though, obviously not through another accident. He's the chief operating officer of the Forum, which is the international trade association representing all facets of the peaceful uses of nuclear power. The 600-member organization has a strong self-interest in promoting nuclear power. There hasn't been a new order for a nuclear power plant in the United States since 1978. Instead, there were 16 cancellations last year and one so far this year with perhaps another two more possible.

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Of Course, that pleases the antinuclear groups. But Mr. Walske is worried about the health of his industry and the prospects for an adequate supply of electricity in the 1990s.

It takes some 10 or 12 years to get a nuclear plant from the drawing board to producing power. Coal-powered plants take nearly as long. So the plants for the 1990s must be ordered soon.

"If they aren't," warns Mr. Walske, "we will have to reduce our consumer expectations from what they are today. I don't think the population wants that. And it doesn't need to happen -- if coal and nuclear plants go ahead."

From a national standpoint, there should be plenty of electrical power available for the 1980s. The utilities, having experienced growth in the demand for power of some 6 or 7 percent a year in the 1960s and early 1970s, ordered dozens of new plants. When the price of electricity soared along with the price of oil and other fuels, conservation reduced the growth rate to 2 or 3 percent a year. So most utilities found themselves with adequate capacity or even too much capacity in the works.

Today about 12 percent of the nation's electricity is produced by nuclear power. The industry has a capacity of around 58,000 MW (Megawatts). Another 87 ,000 MW of nuclear power is under construction, and about 19,000 MW in earlier stages. So by the end of the decade the nation's utilities will be producing nearly three times as much nuclear power as today -- despite all the protest actions of the antinuclear groups.

Indeed, by then the nation's first first fully commercial nuclear plant built by a utility -- Dresden I in Illinois -- should be about ready for decommissioning. It was built some 22 years ago.

Though conservation has slowed growth in the demand for electricity, it hasn't stopped it. By the year 2000, the number of workers in the US will have grown from almost 100 million to perhaps 132 million. The number of robots -- using electrical power -- will have proliferated. Thus the demand for electricity will have grown enormously.

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Mr. Walske figures another 400,000 MW will be needed in the 1990s beyond what is likely to come on-stream from all sources -- coal, nuclear, hydro, or whatever -- during the 1980s.

So what is holding up the new orders for power plants -- either nuclear or coal?

Mr. Walske believes the utilities are nervous about placing new orders for three reasons:

1. Today's high interest rates -- around 20 percent -- discourage construction.

2. Inflation has escalated construction costs.

3. Regulatory difficulties add to uncertainty.

The latter problem is third not only in number but in importance. There was some delay after Three Mile Island in the licensing of new nuclear plants, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now speeding up approvals. Two nuclear power plants got their final licenses this year. By the end of 1952 another 20 will need similar approval.

The Forum surveyed utilities earlier this year to find the cost of regulatory delay and other problems and came up with a $3 billion figure. But things are now moving fast enough that it may turn out to be "only" $1 billion, Mr. Walske guesses.

Nuclear-power opponents sometimes hold that conservation can greatly reduce the need for new power sources. But a study by the Electric Power Research Institute of power demands by the year 2000 puts into its calculations a reduction in demand of 17 to 34 percent as a result of conservation. It also looks at other factors, such as varying levels of productivity growth and gross national product growth. Even looking at the lowest figures, there will still be a demand for huge amounts of electricity -- including nuclear power.

States Chauncey Starr, vice-chairman of that institute: "Recognizing the very long times required to correct a deficiency in generating capacity, the prudent national course it to plan for a surplus. . . . It is important that the discouraging events of the 1970s not be allowed to limit our hopes for future economic growth or to create a philosophy of scarcity. A future of reduced expectations will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow it to be the basis for our planning."