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Can federal regulators be held to blame for Three Mile Island mishap?

In a move that has startled the entire nuclear industry, General Public Utilities Corporation (GPU) -- owner of the stricken Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania -- filed a $4 billion damage claim against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

This claim, unprecedented in the nuclear industry, argues that NRC could and should have prevented the accident which occurred March 28, 1979.

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The basis of this argument is the fact that the NRC sat on an analysis of a similar occurrence at another reactor for 18 months prior to Three Mile Island, only sending it to the GPU the day after the accident.

The claim was filed with the NRC this week. the commission has six months to accept or reject it. If rejected, the utility has the option of taking the claim to federal court.

"We're going to pursue this to the very end," says a spokesman for the GPU, which has almost been bankrupted by the accident and its aftermath.

Reaction among GPU's fellow nuclear utilities was sympathetic, but concerned. "They're desperate enough to try something like this," said one industry representative. "They're about to loose their jobs, stockholders' equity -- everything. But it's not particularly good for the industry as a whole."

Observes Manning Muntzing, a lawyer who once headed the Nuclear Regulatory Division of the Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor of the NRC: "Basically, the law holds that the government is immune from these types of suits. This will be a big hurdle for the plaintiffs to overcome."

Should the utility win such a court battle, however, it would have repercussions in federal regulatory activities far beyond the nuclear industry. As a result, the lawyer believes that the Justice Department will take a "keen interest" in the case and the incoming Reagan administration will have to make a serious policy decision regarding it.

There is a question whether the GPU has an ulterior motive for the claim. One speculation is that this has been done with the support of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which regulates GPU's activities. The commission has failed to let the GPU pass on certain portions of the cost of cleaning up Three Mile Island to its rate base and has been criticized strongly by the NRC as a result. The GPU may be pressing this claim to convince the state commission that it has pursued every possible avenue for recouping its losses. Only then will the regulators allow the utility to pass these costs through to its customers.

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Follow-up studies of the Three Mile Island accident damonstrated beyond question that the NRC was not effectively regulating nuclear reactors. But there appears to be little precedent for making this the basis of a suit as the GPU has done. Upon receipt of the claim, NRC spokesmen would only comment that the agency is studying the matter.

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