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NUCLEAR POWER: Campaigning for an Embattled Cause

4 minute read

Young, casual and appealing, a group of three men and a woman swept through half a dozen college campuses in Wisconsin last week, taking to the rostrums to advance a seriously embattled cause: nuclear power. The soft-sell evangelists, who go under the name of Campus America, are engineers and scientists employed by Westinghouse Electric Corp., a major builder of atomic plants. All volunteers, they receive only traveling expenses for their proselytizing efforts around the country. Yet in the year or so that the show has been on the road. Campus America has become an increasingly important weapon in the still spreading battle between pro-and anti-nuclear forces.

The campaign is the inspiration of two 27-year-old Washington public relations men, Jay Smith and Mark Harroff, who met while working for the Republican National Committee. They effectively played the college circuit themselves during President Nixon’s 1972 campaign—and irritated some of the President’s men by admitting Administration mistakes. When they took on Westinghouse as a client, they had no trouble selling the company the idea of campus tours, this time using trained specialists to debate the foes of nuclear power. Operating with a small portion of the $1 million Westinghouse has earmarked for nuclear promotion, Campus America has so far toured colleges in eight states, generating plenty of pro-nuclear publicity.

Small Output. Yet the very existence of the group—and its reason for being in Wisconsin last week—points up a worrisome energy problem: nuclear power, once regarded as the ultimate energy source, faces a more troubled future today than it did when the first experimental reactor was switched on in 1951. Only 63 nuclear-power plants are operating, and they account for a mere 2.9% of all U.S. energy production. Only seven atomic-power plants were licensed in 1976, and only three reactors were ordered, compared with 30 in 1974.

One reason is the aggressive campaigning of foes, who believe nuclear plants to be unsafe. Last year voters in Ohio, California, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Arizona and Montana rejected propositions to curb nuclear power. But the anti-nukes have won some fights too. Last November Missourians voted to forbid utilities to pass on costs of building power facilities until they were in operation, thus hampering construction of nuclear plants. And at Vermont town meetings early this month, residents of 28 communities voted to bar nuclear plants and waste-disposal facilities in their towns. The Wisconsin legislature is now considering several bills that would restrict or ban nuclear plants. In a January interview with the Conservation Foundation Letter, Russell Train, who headed the Government’s Environmental Protection Agency under President Ford, called for “the phasing out and eventual elimination of all nuclear power.”

Prolonged Debate. Economic factors have likewise turned against nuclear power. For one thing, the cost of building atomic plants has soared. For another, once the plants are operating, they generate electricity at a cost of about three-tenths of a cent per kilowatt hour, v. a penny for conventionally produced power—a substantial saving but far less than expected. Moreover, because of inspections, breakdowns and other technical problems, nuclear-power stations are operating at less than two-thirds of capacity. Government red tape—endless hearings, myriad environmental-impact statements—has also drastically slowed development of nuclear power while adding to its cost. In New Hampshire, debates about the proposed Seabrook nuclear power station have dragged on for five years and produced 50,000 pages of testimony before a shovelful of earth had been turned. Each month of delay adds an estimated $15 million to the cost of the project.

President Carter, though he is a former nuclear engineer, is cool to atomic power. In his revisions of the budget for fiscal 1978, he slashed $200 million from research and development funds for the experimental breeder reactor, which could produce more fuel than it burns, thus providing a major new energy source. All of which makes the task of such nuclear proponents as the Campus America group formidable indeed. They have a valid point in arguing that the nation must accelerate development of nuclear power to be ready for the day when oil and gas supplies run out.

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