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Nuclear lobby pushing the door open to easier plant licensing. But industry admits it faces an uphill political battle

Opening up a nuclear power plant just became easier, at least in theory. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted unanimously last week to consider emergency evacuation plans drawn up by utilities, even when state and local officials refuse to cooperate in the process.

The decision is the first in what nuclear advocates hope will be a string of reforms making it easier to build and license new plants. The nuclear industry is pushing hard for the changes, which involve federal legislation as well as shifts within the regulatory agencies that oversee the industry.

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``We have a pretty good idea what it would take to get nuclear power back on track,'' says A.David Rossin, a former assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the Department of Energy (DOE) and now a private consultant. ``But accomplishing these goals will be politically difficult.''

Dr. Rossin, in Washington last week to address a seminar hosted by pro-nuclear interests, says the licensing process needs to be streamlined. Ideally, he says, firms should be able to get approval for a building site, certify safety of the design, and then know that the plant will be allowed to open on schedule. This will require advances in technology as well as changes in regulatory structures.

As it now stands, getting new nuclear plants built and into the system can easily drag on for years longer than expected. Utilities first get building permits, and then later the license to test and operate the plant. Snags can develop at any step along the way.

Critics of nuclear power argue that the industry is trying to slip out from under the tight oversight necessary to ensure the safety of plants. They point to the NRC's decision on emergency planning as an example of rule changes that will benefit the industry, while undercutting safety.

``[The NRC decision] turns what was already a difficult process for citizen participation into a sham,'' says Scott Denman, director of the Safe Energy Communication Council, a group that opposes nuclear power.

Antinuclear forces have used disaster planning to stall two major projects - Shoreham in New York and Seabrook in New Hampshire. In both cases, state and local officials refuse to participate in evacuation planning required under federal regulations. Until now, this created a legal deadlock, and the plants sat idle.

The nuclear industry is concerned that failure to license these two plants could spell doom for the more than a dozen other plants that are still under construction. The battle is far from over. Opponents of the plants plan to challenge the NRC's decision in court.

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The industry's success in getting the NRC to change the rule for emergency planning underscores the clout the nuclear lobby wields in Washington. The Reagan administration strongly supports the industry. The DOE, for instance, spends far more on nuclear power than on any other energy source.

The NRC, meanwhile, has come under heavy fire from critics who say the regulatory agency gives favored treatment to the nuclear industry. A broad investigation into these charges led to hearings on Capitol Hill in recent months, but no action has been taken.

The nuclear industry has also fared well in Congress - up to a point. One Democratic staff member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee says the industry has got what it wanted ``when the proposals they put forward have had a moderate tone.''

The industry has also succeeded in knocking down legislation deemed antinuclear. Earlier this year, for instance, Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts sponsored an amendment to the NRC authorization bill, exempting Shoreham and Seabrook from any decision on emergency planning. The nuclear industry pulled out the stops to get the amendment defeated, and it finally was.

Another example of careful industry lobbying is the tussle over the renewal of the Price-Anderson Act. The act, designed to nurture commercial nuclear power, limits the liability of companies that operate nuclear plants to $700 million. Without it, the utilities would not be able to insure themselves against a nuclear accident. But even industry officials admit $700 million would not be enough to cover the costs of a major disaster.

The House this summer approved a tenfold increase in the liability limit, which is much more than the industry wanted. At the same time, however, it voted down a number of amendments opposed by the nuclear industry. ``They won a balance on Price-Anderson, which is all they could really expect,'' says the congressional source. The Senate has yet to vote on the subject.

Another key issue before Congress is nuclear waste disposal. Nuclear plants generate a variety of radioactive wastes, some of which will be dangerous for centuries. The DOE must establish a network of disposal sites, but the process for selecting locations has broken down because of regional politics.

Several pieces of legislation are being offered aimed at solving the problem, including a Senate bill that would pay an ``incentive'' to any state that volunteers to take the waste. The nuclear industry has tried to keep a low profile on the subject. But it's not easy. It was debate over the siting of a disposal facility, for instance, that sparked yesterday's referendum in Maine on whether to close that state's only nuclear power plant.

Meanwhile, even advocates admit that changing the rules and regulations is only the first step if nuclear power is going to grow in the future. Rossin, the former DOE official, says there has to be political awareness that these plants will be needed to meet future growth in demand for electricity. ``But even that doesn't exist right now,'' he says.

Last in a three-part series. Previous articles ran Nov. 2 and 3.

Key points on the nuclear agenda

Emergency planning. The nuclear industry is determined to get all the nation's plants brought on line, but disaster planning has emerged as a major stumbling block. State and local officials have delayed the opening of some plants by refusing to cooperate in the planning. A major victory was scored by the industry last week, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said it would consider plans drafted without community input.

NRC reforms. Officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are often accused of being too cozy with the companies they regulate. The controversy has stirred congressional investigations as well as a Justice Department probe into the activities of Commissioner Thomas M. Roberts.

Congress is considering a number of measures designed to ``clean up'' the commission, including a provision that would replace the commission's five-member structure with a single administrator. A government report as long ago as 1980 called the commission ``incapable'' of ensuring safety in a large-scale system of nuclear reactors.

Insurance. The Price-Anderson Act, which provides insurance for the nuclear industry, expired Aug. 1 and has yet to be renewed. The House passed a measure earlier this year that would provide a tenfold increase in the liability limit for the owners of nuclear power stations. Some analysts say the failure to renew the act last year was one reason the nuclear industry sought to consolidate its lobbying in Washington this year. The Senate, meanwhile, has not agreed on a final version of the bill.

Waste disposal. A program to establish disposal sites for nuclear waste collapsed last year, when the Reagan administration pulled back from an agreement worked out between lawmakers from the East and West.

The original plan was to establish one permanent dump in each half of the country. Most of the states singled out for consideration have balked, while dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the agency. A number of proposals are being considered by Congress to get the program moving again, including offering money to the state that is willing to take the waste.

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