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Congress considers bills increasing utilities' liability for accidents

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Congress is in the midst of rewriting the nation's main nuclear insurance law. It is also considering an overhaul of the nation's nuclear power-plant licensing procedures. The fate of both initiatives may indicate the long-term political impact on Capitol Hill of the Soviet nuclear power-plant accident.

Bills are coursing through the legislative machinery in the House and Senate that would renew the Price-Anderson Act, due to expire in August, and raise or remove the limit on compensation in the event of a major accident at a nuclear power plant.

In addition, legislation is under consideration in both houses that would remove many of the hurdles the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires utilities to clear on the way to operating a nuclear plant.

While congressional hearings and debate on Price-Anderson have gone on for the better part of a year, it is only in the past week that House and Senate committees have begun to settle on specific legislation.

The main point of contention continues to focus on where to set the liability limit. With public awareness of the potential hazards of nuclear technology heightened once again by the disaster at Chernobyl, observers seem to agree that those who would significantly increase utility liability have seen their arguments strengthened by this week's events.

``It will strengthen the argument for requiring a heightened liability limit,'' predicted Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R) of Vermont, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works and author of a bill that would altogether remove the present $635 million liability cap. Noting that the Soviet plant design is significantly different from those used by US utilities, he added, ``Whether it should is another matter.''

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