Comanche Peak nuclear plant, under construction near Glen Rose 4.e ,”,,VOROW1g>41SMaVV,K 1 LIGHT WATER How the Nuclear Dream Dissolved By Irvin C. Bupp & Jean-Claude Derian Basic Books, 1978. $10.00 By Susan Reid Austin Nuclear power has been sold as the offer that couldn’t be refusedenergy “too cheap to meter.” Environmentalists might fret about hazards, an independent -scientist or two might caution against precipitate action, but the promise of low numbers on the bottom line sustained a boom in nuclear power plant construction that lasted over a decade. Then, in the mid-1970s, the boom went bust under the weight of prohibitive costs that had never figured into the calculations of the nuclear salesmen, and their industry is now on the verge of bankruptcy. Light Water is the cautionary tale of how it happened that the performance fell so far short of the promise \(the title refers to the type of nuclear reactor perfected and pushed by American corporaIrvin Bupp and Jean-Claude Derian trace the selling of nuclear power and explain why so many people believed for so long with so little reason that nuclear energy would come cheap. They confine themselves to analyzing just one cost of nuclear powerthe cost of constructing a nuclear reactorbut their analysis carries them to a sweeping conclusion: “Systematic confusion of expectation with fact, of hope with reality, has been the most characteristic feature of the entire 30-year effort to develop nuclear power.” The authors mince few words in their criticism of the commercial developers of nuclear energythe process has been a “debacle,” they sayand a careless reader could easily mistake them for anti-nuclear agitators. In fact, both have been associated with nuclear power programs for 15 years, Bupp as a consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor agencies, and Derian as an adviser to the French government’s nuclear power overseers. Acknowledging at the outset their conviction that “the world needs nuclear power in the immediate future,” that “it has an important job to do,” they aim to distinguish the technology itself from the false image of its potential created by the government and industry allies who oversold it. They seem to hope that by debunking the mythology of nuclear power, they can pave the way for renewed public support for its use. They fail in that purpose \(of which rians. book is a sometimes indig nant, always well-documented account of the way the technology they prize has been commercially exploited. Bandwagon The claim that nuclear generators could be built cheaply was based on events in 1963. That year General Electric and Westinghouse, the major competitors in light water reactors, offered to build a complete, ready-to-operate nuclear power facility for Jersey Central Power and Light Company at a contractually firm price. This “turnkey”proposal \(the utility could just turn the key, open the door, and start the nuclear suppliers would assume all responsibility for managing the project and for acquiring the necessary materials and equipmenta measure of their confidence in the cost estimates on which they based their offer. GE got the contract, and the consummation of this business deal fostered economic expectations without any basis in construction experience. It was hype, but it worked. Eight more turnkey contracts followed in short order, and these sales, in turn, “were .accepted as proof of the reality of commercial nuclear power from light water reactors.” Soon. American utilities were placing orders for plants without the inducement of guaranteed prices, and what Bupp and Derian describe as a “Great Bandwagon Market” got underway, with U.S. companies committing themselves to the purchase of 49 nuclear plants in 1966 and 1967, and with two more manufacturers entering the market to try to underbid GE and Westinghouse. The result: a “remarkable buyer’s market . . . characterized by continuous downward revision of the estimated cost of electricity from nuclear plants.” Although the manufacturers lost money on the turnkey deals, they did not reassess their financial projections. Instead, they contended that building experience and engineering improvements would make cost estimates more accurate. However, say Bupp and Derian, “Contrary to the industry’s own oftrepeated claims that reactor costs were `going to stabilize’ and that ‘learning by doing’ would produce cost decreases, just the opposite happened. Even more important, cost estimates did not become more accurate with time. The magnitude of cost underestimation was as large for reactors ordered in the early 1970s as it had been for much earlier commercial sales.” Because light water manufacturers also expected economies of scale to apply to nuclear energy just as they had applied to conventional energy generation, “by 1968, manufacturers were taking orders for plants six times larger than the largest one then in operation.” This, too, was an expectation based on hope and faith rather than sober calculation, and it was belied by experience like all the rest. Why did everyone uncritically accept such claims? Where were the hard-nosed businessmen and the government watchdogs? Bupp and Derian conclude that everyone involved in nuclear decision-making had something to gain. There was a “theology of nuclear power” and a “sanctification of light water technology [that] created an interlocking set of intellectual, political, and commerical interests.” No one could afford to be a disbeliever, so “scientists with an intellectual stake in the success of nuclear power, politicians with a political stake, bureaucrats with an organizational stake, and businessmen with a commericial stake reinforced and amplified each other’s claims.” There were some outsiders who urged caution 18 MARCH 30, 1979
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