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Tracing the growth of nuclear power industry - and safety concerns

Nuclear Power Transformation, by Joseph P. Tomain. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 212 pp. $25. Safety Second, by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 194 pp. $22.50.

Complementary but not identical, these two books describe where the development of nuclear power stands today in the United States, the country of its origin. Both books challenge as inadequate the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its supervision of the new nuclear power industry. They call for renewed oversight by Congress to ensure increased public safety from this relatively new source of energy.

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Joseph Tomain, writing like a prosecuting attorney, argues the case for ``nuclear power transformation''; he is a professor of law at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and author of several publications dealing with environment and energy law. ``Safety Second'' speaks with a collective critical voice for professional nuclear scientists as a group.

Nuclear energy in the US has been faltering since 1979, the year that the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania lost its reactor No. 2. The disaster marked a reduction in the growth or expansion of nuclear power for Americans.

Tomain describes the how and why of nuclear power development until the 1979 disintegration. He then sketches a future nuclear American policy. By considerate, well-explained analysis, he concludes that ``more responsive, democratic, and participatory decisionmaking processes are necessary before future nuclear policy achieves legitimacy in the US.''

A similar, if more critical, analysis is offered by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (replacing the Atomic Energy Commission) took office in 1975. The scientists speak directly to the issue: ``It is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's legal responsibility to ensure the safe operation of plants already on line and those not yet completed. Does the agency's decade-long performance show it can meet this challenge?'' The UCS speaks through Michelle Adato, the chief author of this polemic. Reviewing the NRC's record, she finds that the commission harbors ``both the promotional objectives of its predecessor'' as well as ``the complacent attitude'' shown in 1979 by the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, best known as the Kemeny Commission. Adato writes pessimistically that the challenge to satisfactory regulation of nuclear power cannot be met before late in this decade or in the 1990s.

Wherever you read for any length in either of these books, you may be disturbed.

Tomain's chief points are these:

Commercial nuclear power, once believed to be the bright and shining hope for our energy future, has stalled.

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Subsequent plant cancellations, conversions, and delays signify abandonment of faith in commercial nuclear power.

Divergence between past policies and current needs and the conflict between politics and markets exemplify a transition in nuclear regulation.

Billions of dollars have been mistakenly invested in construction of nuclear plants that now produce no electricity and threaten to bankrupt utilities.

He concludes that it is time to critique past theory, to understand clearly the changes leading to present circumstances, and to design a farsighted future policy.

The Union of Concerned Scientists' book observes:

In 1980, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had substantially improved its efforts toward resolving generic safety issues, but most of those identified back in the mid-1970s remained unresolved.

A General Accounting Office report to the Congress confirmed that the NRC's definition of the term ``resolved,'' used to characterize some problems still unsolved, did not reflect the common-sense meaning of that term.

The NRC has a specific mandate to make safety the paramount consideration in its decisions. The consequences of a serious accident are too great to allow cost considerations to intrude on necessary safety improvements. ``Unfortunately, such an intrusion appears to be taking place.''

Indifference and shortsightedness by the NRC allowed generic technical problems to continue inordinately.

Both books rate the performance of the commission during its first decade as ``far from exemplary.'' The agency has not developed into the tough, independent protector of the public health and safety envisioned.

Ultimately, as both books point out, it is the President and the Senate, through the selection of the NRC commissioners, who are responsible for their performance. The authors hold that ``the Congress must assume a more assertive oversight role so that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission lives up to its safety-first standard.''

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