Pushing nuclear issue in campaign

Less than a year ago, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident triggered a nation's fury and concern. Yet today an all-out campaign is being waged to keep the nuclear power issue from getting lost in this year's election shuffle.

So far it has taken a back seat in the 1980 presidential debate to such hot topics as surging inflation, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the American hostages in Iran.

But in New England, an effort to make nuclear power an issue in the presidential race is beginning to gain ground.

Since early January, members of the Campaign for Safe Energy (CSE) -- a coalition of environmental activists -- have pursued Republican and Democratic candidates at speaking appearances all over the region, asking and re-asking each contender for his views on nuclear power; handing out leaflets; and making door-to-door canvasses of voters.

It is a push that CSE says is beginning to attract the candidates' attention:

* During a recent television appearance on the ABC program "Issues and Answers," Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. praised the antinuclear activists as "honest, decent, concerned, and sensitive people" who are "contributing the quality of dialogue on the nuclear debate in New Hampshire. And they should be watched."

* In the past three weeks, both Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy have endrosed CSE's three-point platform, which calls for a program of national conservation and development of renewable energy resources to make the US energy self-sufficient by the year 2000; a moratorium on licensing of nuclear power plants; and an "orderly phase-out" of existing nuclear power reactors.

Republican Rep. John B. Anderson recently told CSE members that, while he was not sure he would endorse every word of the group's platform, "I have no basic quarrel with you."

* After CSE campaigners plied George Bush with questions at one of his recent appearances, Mr. bush's Massachusetts field organizer called CSE headquarters to compliment the activists on their work.

"We're aware of them," the organizer, Ron Kaufman, said later. "We're listening very closely to what they have to say. What they're bringing to our campaign is a real open-mindedness on our part to their point of view. I'm really impressed with their approach."

The CSE approach, while persistent, is low key. Candidates are politely asked rational questions, not confronted with angry inquisitioners or heckled during speeches. Their answers are patiently listened to -- and immediately fed back through the CSE network, which then uses those responses as the basis for new questions to ask candidates at subsequent campaign stops.

As its nationwide campaign forms here, CSE is looking down the road to the July and August national party conventions, where the group hopes to see an antinuclear plank introduced into both the Republican and Democratic platforms.

But they also say they will be satisfied with achieving two other goals: making nuclear power such a touchy subject that it will become "unfashionable" for presidential contencers to campaign openly as pronuclear candidates; and, if not able to extract antinuclear statements from candidates, at least to open up widespread discussion on, and commitment to, "safe" or renewable energy programs.

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