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Still waiting for the nuclear age

WHILE waiting for the results of the United States Congress's vote on Rep. Edward Markey's amendment to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorization bill Aug. 4, I was sitting at the top of the Prudential Center in Boston. Out the window at the same height was a thick band of yellow pollution. Below, I could see smoke rise from chimney stacks near an electrical generating plant. Boston's citizens, making the already bad air pollution even worse, were burning fossil fuels in fixed burners.

Air pollution ``incidents'' in the past, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, have unquestionably killed a great many people. Three thousand nine hundred people died in London in December 1952 as a result of a dense air pollution fog. Air pollution levels today are lower, yet many scientists believe that thousands of people die every year as a result of them.

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Since 1973, when the nuclear power plants in Vermont, Maine, and Plymouth, Mass., went on line, I have been waiting hopefully for the electrical generating plants inside Boston's Route 128 to be switched off permanently.

In recent years there has been an increase in electricity consumption in our region; it is due in large part to prosperity. Over 50 percent of that electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, much in old city power plants.

There is a growing debate about whether the US will have enough electrical generating capacity in the early 1990s. Yet we do not even have enough now to avoid polluting the air in Boston, or to avoid importing oil in increasing amounts once again from an unstable part of the world.

The accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union has made people afraid of nuclear power. That accident was in a reactor very different from those in the US, and generally agreed to be less safe. Chernobyl had an instability at low power shared by no other reactors in the world. Moreover, it did not have a strong vessel over the top to contain radioactivity.

Nonetheless, the accident has prevented people from seeing a fact well known to technical people. Nuclear power is more benign, both environmentally and from the public-health point of view, than burning oil or coal, and it compares favorably with burning gas or using hydroelectricity.

Mr. Markey's amendment, which was defeated, was intended to prevent the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from clarifying and modifying its six-year-old rules about planning for emergencies. Such a change in NRC rules was necessary to allow both the Shoreham nuclear plant in New York and the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire, close to the Massachusetts border, to start operations. Both plants had been unable to meet an NRC requirement that state and local governments agree on evacuation plans for all people within a 10-mile radius. The governors of Massachusetts and New York argued that a mass evacuation in such heavily populated areas was impossible.

Markey claimed that his amendment had strong scientific backing, including that from a group calling itself the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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I testified on the amendment before a congressional committee last April for a public-interest group called Scientists and Engineers for Secure Energy. The Union of Concerned Scientists was also invited to testify, but it was represented only by a lawyer.

Nor were the governors whose actions Markey supported any better on this point. While pretending to have scientific support for their positions, they did not.

The committee New York Gov. Mario Cuomo set up to study the Shoreham plant was divided; the scientists on it were in favor of opening the plant, while some other members were against that. To the extent that Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis made his decision for scientific reasons, he was wrong. He quoted no written statements from scientists.

But Mr. Dukakis correctly emphasized that it is stupid to ask the governor of a state to testify that an evacuation plan can be adequate in all possible circumstances. It is not his staff but the federal NRC staff that has the expertise and the authority to study and regulate the probability and consequences of accidents. When asked to do so, Dukakis declined. No one wants responsibility without authority.

The NRC is rephrasing its question and should be supported. Those who understand the effects on the environment and national security of stopping nuclear power and burning more oil or coal will be thankful that the House of Representatives agreed.

Richard Wilson is Mallinckrodt professor of physics at Harvard University.

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