I guess I never thought about it very much. Flip a switch and it's there- electricity, that is. You just expect it. However, the recent problem of insufficient electricity in the state of California has persons in other parts of the country wondering if it can happen in their locations.

Once, there was the promise of unlimited electricity from nuclear power generation plants. But that promise never materialized. According to the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), 104 nuclear power generation plants in 31 states generate 20% of the electricity in the U.S. today. Six states get greater than 50% of their electricity from nuclear power. No nuclear plants have been ordered since 1978 and more than 100 reactors have been canceled, including all ordered after 1973. The nuclear power industry's troubles include high nuclear power plant construction costs, relatively low costs for competing fuels, public concern about nuclear safety and waste disposal, and regulatory compliance costs. However, average operating costs of U.S. nuclear plants dropped substantially during the 1990s, and costly downtime has been reduced.

High construction costs might be the most serious obstacle to nuclear power expansion. Natural gas- and coal-fired power plants currently are favored over nuclear reactors for new generating capacity. However, the nuclear industry believes that simpler, safer versions of today's commercial reactors could eventually be built in the U.S.

A few years ago, says Richard Meserve, chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it was predicted that the deregulation of electricity prices would result in the premature shutdown of many nuclear plants. However, attention instead is now focused on reactor license renewal-as much as 85% of the current fleet is expected to be the subject of applications for license renewal. If these are successful, nuclear energy will contribute to the nation's energy security well into this century.

...Although new nuclear capacity is not being built in the U.S., environmental and economic considerations are nonetheless compelling us to take a fresh look at nuclear power, says Meserve. The U.S. Dept. of Energy encourages the continued operation of commercial U.S. nuclear plants as an important element in meeting national goals for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Because nuclear plants directly emit no CO2, the continued operation of existing U.S. reactors avoids more than 620-million tons of CO2 emissions each year. This CO2 results primarily from fossil fuel combustion, with coal proportionately producing the most, followed by oil, followed by natural gas (which produces about 40% less CO2 per unit of effective output than coal). Global warming that may be caused by fossil fuels-the "greenhouse effect"-is cited by nuclear power supporters as an important reason to develop a new generation of reactors.

Recently, there has even been the first stirring of interest in the possibility of new construction in the U.S. There has been, says Meserve, a remarkable change in the attitude toward, and future prospects for, nuclear power in the United States. Meserve notes that despite all the obstacles facing the nuclear industry, it still has achieved remarkable gains in both economic and safety performance over the past decade and thus could seize the opportunity presented by electricity price deregulation.

However, Meserve notes that the renewed interest in nuclear energy that is now emerging will not be sustained without public confidence. The key issue for the future of the nuclear industry might be the establishment and maintenance of public confidence that nuclear energy is acceptably safe. To maintain public confidence, Meserve notes that the NRC must provide open processes so the public has the opportunity to raise concerns and to observe that those concerns have been weighed and fairly evaluated. The NRC has identified public confidence as one of its four performance goals in its strategic planning. It is the public that will determine the future of nuclear power, says Meserve.

For more on the background and analysis of the nuclear power industry in the U.S., see www.cnie.org; for more information on NRC activities, see: www.nrc.org.