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Chernobyl's Haunting Legacy : Mideast Oil Could Be Soviet Target if Nuclear Program Stalls

July 14, 1986|ERNEST CONINE | Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer

Horrible as the nuclear-reactor accident at Chernobyl was in human terms, alot of people managed to see a "good news-bad news" syndrome at work--with the good news being that the accident would help to discredit nuclear power once and for all.

To some degree it's happening. The Netherlands has suspended further nuclear commitments. The energy minister of Switzerland says that his country might stop using nuclear power after the year 2000. The debate concerning the safety of nuclear power has been intensified in the United States, Great Britain and West Germany.

Less than three months after Chernobyl, however, it is amply clear that the demise of nuclear power is not at hand.

The Soviet government itself has hastened to tell the world that it is going right ahead with nuclear-power development. Similar signals have come from France, Japan and other heavy hitters in the nuclear-power game. If there is to be a turning away from nuclear power, it obviously will be a slow and undramatic process.

That's disappointing to those of us who hoped for more. But let's face it: If by some miracle nuclear-energy development plans were abandoned wholesale, that would pose dangers of its own, both to the global economy and to world peace and stability.

Western nations have about 280 nuclear-power plants in operation, with 177 more on order or under construction. The developing countries have 26 operating reactors now, and expect to have 47 more by the end of the next decade. The Soviet Union has 40 nuclear-power stations in operation now, and the new five-year plan calls for completion of 15 more by 1990. A baker's dozen reactors are operating in communist Eastern Europe, and more are under construction.

Nuclear-power generation obviously holds down demand for oil, coal and natural gas. Conant and Associates, an energy consulting firm, figures that this year nuclear power will substitute for 1 1/2 billion barrels of oil or oil equivalents just among the advanced Western countries that make up the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

That works out to more than 4.1 million barrels a day, which is not much less than the current daily production of Saudi Arabia. By the year 2000 the experts expect that figure to more than double.

Obviously even a partial retreat from nuclear power, such as delay or abandonment of new projects, would affect the world oil market. Rising demand would exert an upward pressure on energy prices, thereby strengthening the hand of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Higher energy prices would drive up living costs in the United States and the world generally. The environment would be affected, too, because part of the fuel switch would in fact be to coal.

Energy-consuming nations such as France and Japan that have become most heavily dependent on nuclear power would naturally be the most affected by a retreat from the atom. Those with substantial natural-gas resources, including countries with access to the North Sea fields, would be affected less.

One of the biggest unknowns is how a major de-emphasis of nuclear-power generation would affect the Soviet Union.

The Soviets are the world's largest oil-producing nation, and have enormous gas and coal reserves to boot. Oil exports account for up to 80% of the hard-currency earnings that Moscow uses to pay for imports of grain and Western technology. Petroleum supplies also provide a major source of leverage in Moscow's dealings with its fiefdoms in Eastern Europe.

The Soviet Union is nonetheless pursuing an extraordinarily ambitious nuclear-power development program, especially in the heavily populated European areas of the nation, with the apparent intention of freeing up more oil for export or hedging against possible declines in oil production. To the degree that Chernobyl-generated concerns force a slowing of nuclear-power development, these goals will be compromised.

In the ongoing U.S.-Soviet competition in the Middle East, the United States has had one great upmanship advantage: The oil resources of the Middle East are vital to the West but of marginal importance to the Soviet Union. Moscow knows that any action seriously interfering with Middle Eastern oil supplies could well start World War III.

The situation, however, could change drastically if something happened to make Arab oil supplies more important to Moscow. Something, for example, like a prolonged delay in bringing new nuclear plants into operation or a really serious problem within the Soviet oil industry.

What if such events threatened to set off serious anti-Soviet reverberations in Eastern Europe? Or cut so deeply into foreign-exchange earnings as to threaten Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's plans for the modernization of his country's economy?

The Soviets already are playing oil politics in the Middle East. They are importing oil from Iran, Syria, Libya and Iraq--which they then re-export to the West--as payment for arms sales. If circumstances drove them to need even more Middle Eastern oil, it would no longer be a safe bet that the Soviets would blink first in a confrontation with the United States.

To many of us, nuclear energy is a frightening technology that, fortunately, is not economically attractive anyway in a world of oil surpluses. The truth is, however, that the monster has to be done away with gradually. Otherwise the cure may very well be worse than the disease.

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