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Decision to restart reactor at Three Mile Island is symbolic win for industry. But nuclear plant still faces appeals; vote isn't seen as precedent-setting

After six years, a symbolic thorn in the side of the nuclear power industry has been plucked out. Industry officials were clearly relieved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision Wednesday to allow the restart of the Three Mile Island Unit 1 reactor, which has sat dormant since the accident at its sister reactor in 1979. The officials are heralding the action as a major moral victory at a time when the nuclear power industry seems to have little to cheer about.

``It is a good day for nuclear power,'' says Don Winston, a spokesman for the industry's Atomic Industry Forum. ``Three Mile Island has been a drag on the industry from the start.''

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But the restart is not seen as precedent-setting for other languishing nuclear power projects around the country, because of the uniqueness of the situation at Three Mile Island.

The undamaged Unit 1 was down for refueling in March 1979, when Unit 2 overheated and melted part of its uranium fuel supply, threatening a massive release of radioactivity. Unit 1 was closed not because of concerns for its structural integrity, but because of doubts about the ability of the plant's owner, General Public Utilities Corporation (GPU), to run such an operation.

GPU was beset by scandal in the aftermath of the event for falsifying safety test data. The company has since replaced many of its officers and tightened safety inspection procedures.

Thus, the restart decision, rather than being a referendum on the industry as a whole, is seen as a vote of confidence for the GPU. But the action still does not ensure that the utility will overcome several serious legal challenges to the future of Unit 1.

Within minutes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's 4-to-1 vote, Three Mile Island Alert, a citizen's group from the nuclear plant's hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., filed a petition with the United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, to reverse the commission's decision. Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh (R) and the state's two US senators had urged the NRC to postpone its decision until further hearings could be held on GPU's competency to run the plant.

As far as some opponents are concerned, the NRC's action isn't the last word.

``The dissent throughout [the six years of NRC hearings] dramatically highlighted the unhappiness that many people have with all this,'' says Ellyn Weiss, general counsel for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an anti-nuclear group. ``The nuclear industry can't afford too much of that kind of display.''

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