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Now, more than ever, America needs nuclear energy.

OF ALL THE TOOLS mankind has mastered over the centuries, none has done more to improve its standard of living than the force Benjamin Franklin identified during a thunderstorm nearly 250 years ago. When humans harnessed electricity, they lifted their burden of intense labor, lengthened their days, and made their world smaller. Once a novelty, electricity is now an inexpensive necessity.

The typical American household spends about $65 each month for electricity, according to the Edison Electric Institute. That amount provides heat in winter and relief from heat in summer. It turns night into day. It cooks and preserves food. It brings into living rooms the majesty of a symphony orchestra or the excitement of the Olympic Games. What a bargain! By contrast, the same consumer today often spends more for telephone and cable television service.

In the U.S., electricity sales have gone up steadily. From 1987 through 1992, they increased 12%; from 1982 to 1992 alone, they rose 32%. Since the 1973 oil embargo, electricity use and the economy have expanded roughly in parallel. Electricity demand from 1973 to 1991 went up by about 61%; the U.S. economy, measured by the Gross Domestic Product, approximately 48%. Total U.S. energy consumption rose by only 10% during this time, however, and nonelectric energy use fell six percent.

The relationship between electricity demand and U.S. economic growth--measured by GDP--is not fixed or static, but fluctuates. Before 1973, electricity growth was much higher than that in GDP. Between 1960 and 1972, demand increased by seven percent annually, on average--nearly twice the growth rate in constant dollar GDP during this period. Electricity demand from 1973 to 1991 went up about 61%; over this same period, GDP rose about 48%.

Between 1973 and 1985, electricity consumption grew by 2.5% annually, nine percent faster than GDP growth. Since 1985, electricity sales have risen at a somewhat brisker pace, nearly four percent annually--twice as high as GDP. Since 1984, electricity prices--discounted for inflation--have fallen by about 24%.

Electricity is called upon increasingly to do many of the jobs once done by coal, oil, and natural gas, as homes and businesses continue switching from burning fuels directly. The average household increased electricity use by 65% from 1973 to 1992, while the average commercial business utilized 97% more electricity by 1992.

Two major factors are responsible for this growth. In both sectors, the amount of customers has increased. Over this period, for example, residential electricity consumers rose by about 41% and the amount of commercial users by approximately 45%. In addition, customers in both sectors are using more electricity than they did in 1973. In the residential sector, this can be attributed to an increase in electrical appliances, especially new items like microwave ovens and VCRs.

The U.S. industrial sector utilizes more electricity today, partly because industry is replacing fossil-fueled processes with electricity in many applications. Electric manufacturing processes are more energy-efficient, cleaner, and easier to control, and they improve productivity and product quality. For instance, an electric steel mill cuts over-all energy use by 70%, compared to that needed for steel made in a conventional coal-fired blast furnace. This process also is environmentally friendly. Electric steel mills cut carbon dioxide emissions by two pounds for each pound of steel produced.

To keep up with only a moderate increase in electricity demand, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that, by the year 2010, the U.S. will need about 250 new, large power plants, even if Americans learn to use electricity much more efficiently. However, the DOE estimate does not take into account another trend: Most of today's power plants will have reached middle age at the end of this decade. By the year 2000, around 40%--the largest share of the industry's generating capacity--will be more than 30 years old, double the figure of 1990. At the same time, stricter environmental regulations, such as the Clean Air Act, will make some older fossil-fueled facilities uneconomical to operate.

That is why progress is being made to ensure that utilities that need modern power plants can choose the technology that provides more clean electricity than any other source--nuclear power, which is second only to coal in today's electricity production. Together, coal and nuclear account for nearly 80% of the nation's electricity needs. At 22%, nuclear power provides more electricity than gas (nine percent), hydro (nine percent), and oil (three percent) combined. Renewables--such as wind, solar, and geothermal--make up less than one percent of the electricity Americans use

Nuclear energy will play an important role in future electricity needs, thanks to its ecological benefits. Now that Pres. Clinton has pledged the U.S. to limit its carbon dioxide levels, nuclear energy's ability to produce large amounts of electricity without emitting pollution increases its environmental value.

Because it burns nothing, nuclear power is less damaging to the environment than fossil fuels. Today, America's 109 operating nuclear electricity plants cut carbon dioxide emitted by power generation by more than 20%--a savings of 420,000,000 tons a year. Since 1973, the year of the first oil embargo, nuclear energy has reduced the world's emissions of carbon dioxide--the chief "greenhouse gas"--by 1,300,000,000 tons.

Ecological responsibility is an important part of nuclear power plant management. Facilities are designed, built, and regulated to prevent radioactive emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency sets--and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission enforces--strict standards governing radiation emissions. To make sure that nuclear power plants operate well within those standards, radiation levels at every plant are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Additionally, nuclear power companies voluntarily work to protect nearby wildlife and their habitats. Many have developed the areas around cooling ponds as environmentally rich wetlands, providing better nesting areas for waterfowl and other birds, new habitats for fish, and preservation of various species of wildlife, flowers, and grasses.

Nuclear power plants make a significant contribution toward conserving natural resources by reducing the need to mine and burn fossil fuels. In 1991, nuclear power plants displaced 145,000,000 tons of coal, 265,000,000 barrels of oil, and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the U.S. This tangible benefit is prompting some major environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy, to support nuclear power for its ability to generate large amounts of clean electricity.

Building new power plants of any type only can come after everything has been done to use electricity smarter. Numerous American electric companies are committed to that effort, spending $2,000,000,000 each year to support 2,000 energy efficiency programs--more than is being invested by the government. These already have paid off by saving an amount of electricity equal to about 24 large power plants. Even with these gains in efficiency, new power plants will be necessary for future growth.

At the same time the U.S. plans how to meet future power needs, it must be kept in mind that the nation is a citizen of a global village whose members are growing more competitive and interconnected. A reliable, adequate supply of clean power is central to maintaining America's economy and its place in the global marketplace. It is necessary to keep pace with other countries, which aggressively are planning for their long-term power needs, or risk losing to other nations the industries and jobs that make the U.S. standard of living possible.

France, for example, relies on nuclear power to supply about 73% of its electricity, putting it in the enviable position of exporting electricity to neighboring countries while keeping its national carbon dioxide emissions lower than other industrialized countries. France produces just two tons of carbon per $1,000,000 of GNP, while the U.S. turns out 240; Japan, 100; and the United Kingdom, 157.

Japan, which already generates nearly one-quarter of its electricity with nuclear power, has set itself on an unwavering course toward higher, more advanced technology throughout its island nation. Because of their limited natural resources and their pledge to keep per capita carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels through the year 2000, the Japanese have committed strongly to a foundation of scientific and technological industries, including nuclear power, to keep their economy growing. When they went shopping for their next generation of nuclear power plants, the Japanese chose an advanced made-in-America design, although the U.S. has yet to build a new nuclear plant based on this design.

Contrast Japan's initiative with the energy situation faced in the U.S. today:

* Even though Americans use less oil for power production, the U.S. imports more oil today than ever before. Within months after the Persian Gulf War ended in 1991, imports were 45% of oil consumption, higher than the 35% imported in 1973, the year of the first oil embargo.

* The U.S. ranks first, producing a record amount of electricity from the atom in 1992, but still trails 13 countries in its total share of electric generation from nuclear power.

* Despite DOE and industry projections that the U.S. will have to construct additional power plants in the next 15 years, Americans don't think they are needed.

* Although electricity generated by renewables such as solar, wind, biomass, waste, and geothermal is expected to triple by 2010, DOE projections show that they still will produce less than five percent of the nation's power.

Nevertheless, the energy sky won't fall. Utilities understand that electricity is a constant, essential feature in Americans' lives. While they work to encourage energy conservation to hold down demand, utilities also are making plans to meet future requirements.

The U.S.'s increased need for electricity by 2010 dovetails with the nuclear industry's progress in preparing the way for constructing modern power plants. These will be even safer and more reliable, efficient, and economical than today's reactors. Each will meet tough standards for environmental protection. That's why the Japanese are building American advanced-design nuclear power plants right now.

Advanced-design technology. Even though U.S. advanced nuclear power plants are being built abroad, the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission must approve this new engineering and resolve all safety-related design issues before the plants are ordered and built here. The NRC is reviewing four designs for standardized, advanced nuclear power plants, and a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Energy and 16 electric utilities is providing funding for detailed engineering of two of those designs.

These standardized designs draw upon over 35 years of industry experience. U.S. nuclear power plants now operating are world-class performers, paving the way for the next generation.

Nuclear power plant performance. More than half the nuclear plants with the highest 1992 efficiency ratings worldwide and 40% of the highest-producing plants globally were U.S. units, placing them among the best-designed and -operated facilities on the planet. Nuclear power plants generated more electricity in 1992 than ever--more than gas-fired plants, hydroelectric dams, and all other renewable resources combined.

Current nuclear energy plants not only reflect decades of experience accumulated by the U.S. commercial nuclear power industry, they are upgraded and modified whenever the industry or government regulators identify ways to improve safety or performance. The most serious accident in America--at Three Mile Island in 1979 --proved the U.S.'s "defense in depth" method of building multiple safety systems in nuclear power plants worked, and was a valuable lesson to the industry about the importance of plant safety and operator training. No one died or was injured as a result of the accident, largely thanks to the safety systems, which prevented a major release of radioactivity. The U.S. nuclear power industry has achieved dramatic advances in safety and personnel training ever since, and its philosophy of continual technical improvement will carry forward with future nuclear power plants.

The nuclear power industry isn't alone in looking ahead to America's energy future. Congress has taken steps to secure it with the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which positioned the nuclear power industry for the next century. This law reforms the legal framework under which new, standardized advanced nuclear plants will be built. This modernized licensing process increases stability for investors, allowing shorter construction schedules and thus lower costs. At the same time, it ensures multiple, early opportunities for public participation in plant decisions, when involvement is most meaningful.

The licensing reforms will make nuclear power even more competitive as a clean energy source that also increases energy independence--two goals set by Pres. Clinton. Advanced-design nuclear plants now being developed will be a cost-competitive option for meeting demands for new generating facilities, according to financial, technical, and utility experts.

Dealing with nuclear waste

Before the U.S. can build the advanced nuclear power plants it can sell abroad, an issue that nuclear's critics have held up for decades as a tremendous stumbling block --storing used nuclear fuel--must be resolved. It is not a lack of science that has held the industry back.

Although scientists around the world agree that the technology exists to isolate nuclear waste from the environment in deep underground repositories, the U.S. has lacked the political will to find a disposal site and build a facility. That could be changing, however.

The Clinton Administration has pushed for a solution to the high-level nuclear waste problem in the U.S. As a former nuclear utility executive, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary has had firsthand experience with the potential storage problems of high-level radioactive waste. She has stated on several occasions that one of the department's top priorities will be studying the feasibility of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as an appropriate site for disposal of the nation's spent high-level commercial waste.

O'Leary has not backed away from that stance now that she is in office. Announcing a new direction for the Department of Energy's radioactive waste program, she indicated that "Devising an acceptable strategy for the long-term management of nuclear waste is both a national priority and an opportunity for the United States to set the standard for an international environmental initiative of overwhelming consequence."

Today, more Americans feel that difficult issues can not be left for future generations to solve, thus condemning the nation's children to a lower standard of living. Americans must learn to use each resource at its maximum potential. As the U.S. enjoys the benefits of these resources, though, it also must accept responsibility for disposing of their wastes, especially when from energy sources. Whether fossil fuels, nuclear power, or renewables, each has advantages, and each has limitations. That's why the U.S. depends on a mix of fuels to meet its electricity needs.

If Americans are serious about the economy, the environment, natural resources, and energy independence, nuclear power will remain a strong contender on the list of energy choices for the future.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bayne, Phillip
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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