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Energy ... As If Common Sense Mattered

Assess our needs

Since the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, many Americans have learned that they can willingly consume less electricity and energy -- without a reduction in their standard of living.

Some experts believe we waste between 25-40% of all of the electricity we generate. Clearly, we do not need to build more multi-billion dollar nuclear power plants until we first plug this major leak in our energy bucket.

However, this country still does not know how much energy -- especially electricity -- it really needs, as opposed to what it wants to consume addictively. We need a national energy policy that will make assessing our actual energy needs its number one priority, before building or opening even one more large-scale power plant of any type, coal or nuclear.


The potential for energy conservation in this country is enormous -- especially for electricity. Three studies performed by major govern- ment and research organizations between 1981 and 1986 concluded that the U.S. has the potential to conserve the energy equivalent of between 189 and 220 nuclear power plants. By comparison, the United States currently operates only 108 nuclear power plants.

Conservation methods are cheaper than building and operating nuclear plants, more flexible in meeting electrical needs, and far quicker to implement. Conservation programs have a far greater effect on reducing air pollution, acid rain, and foreign oil imports than do nuclear power plants. Further -- and most significantly -- conservation doesn't create long-lived radioactive waste products requiring perpetual care as do nuclear plants.



To meet future electrical needs, any new generating capacity will need to meet several criteria: it must have minimal environmental impact; it must be reliable and economical; it should utilize the energy resources found in the region in which it is located; it should be flexible enough to meet variations in demand needs, whether they come from the hot peak days of August, maintenance outages, breakthroughs in technology, or unforeseen events like oil embargoes; it should be quick to construct and bring on line; the sources of energy should be local and renewable, and not subject to foreign intervention.

Nuclear power meets none of these criteria. Alternative and renewable sources of energy meet all of these criteria today.

It has been said that the costs of alternatives compare poorly with nuclear power. However, when one figures in costs that current estimates for nuclear power leave out -- such as the cost for disposal of nuclear waste, $97 billion in research and tax subsidies granted the nuclear industry since 1950, the $9 billion government subsidization of nuclear fuel production, inadequate insurance protection for the public in case of nuclear accidents, for example -- the gap in cost between nuclear power and some renewables closes quickly. Increased usage of alternatives will bring down the costs even further through economies of scale.

Alternative and renewable sources of electricity production -- passive and active solar power, wind and tidal power, biomass generation, geothermal and small hydro power -- exist and are being used today all over the country, including Illinois, which for example has a currently available yet untapped biomass (energy from agricultural wastes) potential equal to the electricity production of 6 nuclear reactors, according to a 1993 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Taken in conjunction with conservation, increased efficien- cy and cogeneration, they create a national energy system that meets all of the desirable criteria for an energy source that nuclear power does not and cannot. And they provide one additional benefit -- they allow the users, not the big power companies, to control their own energy future.

Because we have been a country addicted to wasting our resources for so long, we must learn to utilize the electricity we produce more wisely. Greater electrical efficiency can be attained by using appliances, electric motors, and lighting available today that are more energy efficient. The equivalent power output of 22 nuclear power plants could be saved by the year 2000 through the implementation of these efficiency techniques. A 1990 report from the internationally respected Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) concluded that, "Use of energy-saving technologies would result in a saving [by the year 2000]...of 24 to 44% of electric consumption."

Recycling what formerly was considered waste materials (such as paper, glass, and aluminum) not only saves the raw materials themselves, but the electrical energy used to convert these raw materials into finished products.


Cogeneration is the process whereby waste heat generated in a mechanical or industrial process is reclaimed and used either to generate electricity directly (by making steam to drive a turbine), or used to reduce the need to use electricity to perform a job (such as by preheating water).

The amount of electricity generated through the use of cogeneration in this country has risen from 4% in 1980, to 7% in 1987, and is expected to climb to 15% by 1995. Studies conducted by the State of Illinois and nuclear utility giant Commonwealth Edison indicate an untapped cogeneration potential exists in Illinois ranging in size from 3 to 6 nuclear reactors-worth of power.

Numerous large industrial plants and institutions in the Chicago area, such as the NALCO Chemical Co. of Naperville, Evanston Township High School, and the Illinois Institute of Technology, for example, currently meet their electrical needs with cogeneration systems. These institutions no longer need electricity from nuclear- or coal-fired plants. NALCO recovered its initial $4.9 million investment in cogeneration equipment in 4 years, and now enjoys tremendous energy savings, making the company stronger and more competitive.

New Generating Capacity

Not one new nuclear power plant has been ordered and subsequently completed in this country since 1973. No new orders have been placed, and all plants previously under construction have either been completed or cancelled. The price of electricity that ratepayers pay for power from some of the newer reactors is among the highest per-kilowatt-hour in the nation because of the nuclear construction programs of some utilities.

There may come a time when additional, large-scale generating capacity may be needed again. Given the cheaper, less-polluting, and more readily implemented alternatives described here, that day could be well into the next century. One thing is certain. Given the energy options outlined here, no new, large-scale nuclear power plants are needed in this country, now or in the near future. if Common Sense Mattered:
Breaking the ling between unwise energy use and environmental degradation

As we move to celebrate the 25th anniver- sary of Earth Day, a story comes to mind about our unrestrained, unwise use of energy, and the consequences it has had on our environment and economy.

A farmer went out to his pump one morn- ing, carrying his old, rickety bucket. As ex- pected, as he began to pump, the bucket began leaking everywhere.

An opportunistic, city-slicker salesperson, who watched the scene with glee from across the road, strolled up to the farmer and said,

"Farmer, I see you've got a big problem here. But don't worry. I can help you!"

"How's that?" asked the farmer.

"I can sell you a bigger pump," replied the salesperson.

Now, it is with precisely this same attitude that large utilities intend, and the majority of Americans (if not most people in the industrial- ized world) expect to meet future energy de- mands, no matter how unreasonable or environ- mentally costly these demands might be.

The major environmental problems con- fronting the planet today -- global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion, nuclear waste disposal, deforestation and desertification, nuclear prolifer- ation, urban smog, just to name a few -- all have their root cause in or are made worse by our unwise, unrestrained consumption of ever- increasing amounts of energy.

The denial of our responsibility for these environmental conditions is made easier by our uncritical acceptance of the "bigger pump" mentality as a techno-fix "solution" to our energy and environmental problems, regardless of the resulting environmental consequences. One need only read nuclear utility ads touting nuclear power as a "solution" to global warming, or hear the restated intention to open Alaska's Arctic Wildlife refuge for oil exploration even in the wake of the Exxon Valdez and Siberian pipeline disasters to see this mentality exists.

We mistakenly equate our energy dem- ands with our energy needs, and then errone- ously conclude that we need to build "bigger pumps" to produce more energy to meet our supposedly justifiable, ever-increasing energy demands. The legitimacy of such demands is closer to that of spoiled brats than people truly short of energy.

The fact is that we Americans are energy addicts. We consume -- and waste -- far more energy than any other people on Earth. And, like good pushers do, the utilities with their "bigger pumps" remain ever-ready to give us our energy fix, at a great profit to them and their investors, and with great damage to the environment on our behalf.

Carbon dioxide and other Greenhouse gases are no more "responsible" for causing global warming and its disastrous consequences than cyanide was "responsible" for causing the Holocaust. Only humans -- adult, mature, rational people -- can assume responsibility for actions and their results.

We must assume direct responsibility for the wasteful energy System we have set up, and then change it in ways that begin to use energy more wisely and sparingly, and that are more environmentally benign. Such changes call for reducing our present level of energy (ab)use; increased use of conservation; wider application of energy efficiency; as well as appropriate use of cogeneration, renewable and alternative energy resources. Expanded use of these energy sources will permit us to meet appropriate end-use energy needs, without the environmental havoc wreaked by construction and use of "bigger pumps."

We can rationally and voluntarily choose to implement these changes in how we view and use energy; or we can passively let the Planet force these and possibly more draconian chang- es on us through more severe environmental consequences. The choice is ours to make; and not to decide is to decide.

Building "bigger pumps" will neither solve our future energy problems, nor lessen the environmental consequences of energy use. The implacable Laws of Thermodynamics tell us this, even though we continue to act as if they didn't exist. "Bigger pump" solutions will, however, divert valuable attention and scarce, finite resources away from fixing our leaking "energy buckets" and other such energy end- use problems.

Only by using energy in a way as if com- mon sense mattered can we truly begin to meet the future energy needs of people across the Planet, without destroying the environment -- and ourselves -- in the process.

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Last Revised August 31, 2004