National Geographic : 1991 Aug
costs, you get them all down to a reasonable few pretty quick." A nuclear plant wasn't one of them. "We seriously considered one a few years ago when we first heard about the standardized 600-megawatt concept," he explained. "The vendor gave us some dollar and kilowatt num bers, and we ran them through all our alternative analyses. But when we considered the uncertainties of the investment and the negative perceptions that still abound in the public, not to mention the waste issue, we just had to back away." Between now and the end of the decade, FPL is placing its bets on advanced gas turbines, because they are quicker to build, require less capital, can be added in small increments, and are viewed more favorably by state regulators, who tend to disapprove of risky, long-term investments. "We focus on the short-term in this country," complains Energy Secretary James Wat kins. "You make a quick deal today and everybody praises you, and they don't look out there in the future." In the future: That's where next-generation reactors re main for now. Though a few might be started before the end of the 1990s-perhaps by the feder ally owned Tennessee Valley Authority or by a consortium of sev eral utilities and a reactor manufacturer-the idea of a nuclear revival remains wishful thinking by its promoters. Neither the American public nor the political system appears to be ready for it. "Our federal democratic system makes a nuclear revival a diffi cult challenge," says I. C. Bupp, managing director of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a private consulting firm. "There may be circumstances under which it could be manageable, but it won't happen overnight." Last February President Bush proposed a national energy strat egy favoring new nuclear plants. But it is not clear that his plan will be welcomed by Congress and other sectors of the nation. For now we are counting on gas turbines, conservation programs, and pur chases of electricity from Canada to keep us out of trouble. We want to move away from the dirtiest of fuels and find renewable sources of energy-but we do not yet agree on the path. If this pushing and shoving between our needs and desires seems inefficient compared with policy-making in France, that may be a fair characterization. If it seems unnecessarily contentious com pared with the consensus process in Sweden, that too may be true. But we probably can't do anything about it, says William McCol lam, Jr., president emeritus of the Edison Electric Institute. "It's the price we pay for our system of democracy." Meanwhile the nuclear industry presses on with advanced designs, waiting for the moment when public opinion and the marketplace may give it another chance. LIGHT IDEA Weighing less than two M&M's, a piece of aerogel developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is one of the best insulators ever tested, says chemist Tom Tillotson. The glass-like substance, 99.8 per cent air,works six times better than fiberglass insulation. To reduce demand, many util ities promote conservation even helping pay for home insu lation and more efficient appli ances. Power companies paying people to use less: one sign of a changing electric future. A Comebackfor Nuclear Power?