Questions on the Future of Nuclear Power

Implications and Trade-Offs Gao ID: EMD-79-56 May 21, 1979

A report providing a perspective on the future role of U.S. nuclear power was prepared by GAO, assessing the impact of nuclear growth on the national energy system. Nuclear reactors account for only a fraction of present installed capacity, but nuclear power has been the major growth factor for U.S. electricity. Nuclear growth can vastly increase domestic energy supply, but the desirability of continuing current trends has been questioned in heated and protracted discussions, particularly in the wake of the Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, incident. The desirability and necessity of nuclear power have been questioned as to waste disposal, nuclear proliferation, cost effectiveness, safety, and the demand for electricity. The subject merits serious consideration because it is one of a handful of domestic energy sources, it promises increased electric capacity, and it does not produce carbon dioxide. The view of nuclear power as the energy source of last resort implies other options permitting the minimization of the nuclear role while increasing the energy supply, reducing imports, and meeting electrical demand. The two available major options are conservation of electricity and the substitution of coal for nuclear power. Prospects for a continuing diminution in the growth of electricity demand seem bleaker in view of dwindling world oil supplies and the chances that electricity will be used to replace oil in some applications. The analysis of the effects of different levels of nuclear energy by GAO is predicated on four assumptions: U.S. coal production will reach 2 billion tons annually by 2000, oil and gas generation of electricity will remain at present levels from 1977 through 1985, hydroelectric output will grow at 2 percent per year, and other energy sources will double from 1977 and every 5 years thereafter.

If actions are taken to limit or halt the growth of nuclear power, serious shortfalls could occur in the next 5 to 10 years unless electricity demand is curbed or coal production is increased. Other workable possibilities include reductions in coal consumption outside the electrical sector, unexpectedly sharp growth in solar and geothermal power, or severe cutbacks in electrical consumption. In any event, coal is bound to become scarce for nonelectrical uses. The conclusions reached by GAO were based on rather conservative estimates of the future power picture, but it would not be prudent to make projections based on technologies which are still in the research and development stage.

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