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NRC's wise vote

Some belated applause is in order for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Late last week the NRC voted to deny a request from the US Department of Energy that the commission waive rules and allow construction work at the Clinch River Breeder Reactor site before required environmental studies were completed. In short, the DOE was asking that it be granted exemptions from rules that must be followed by other petitioners before the commission. The NRC's 3-to-2 vote correctly sent the DOE packing.

One would think that after everything that has happened concerning nuclear power in the past few years -- from the Three Mile Island incident to questions about the effectiveness of the NRC itself -- ''going by the rules'' would be the primary marching order for the nuclear industry. The Clinch River project has a formidable roster of backers, not least of all the Reagan administration and Congress. But no construction is yet underway.

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That was what DOE wanted to do. Get ready for construction by putting in roads, building a cement plant, clearing land for a railroad. And, of course, all such non-nuclear construction work would make it more difficult to stop the project. Fortunately, the NRC saw through the ploy.