Boston — In one part of the country, a steam pipe bursts and a nuclear plant is thrown into an emergency. In another area, a utility is slapped with a heavy fine for irregular operation of a nuclear reactor. And once again, the nuclear industry squirms in the glare of unfavorable national publicity.
But there are two important lessons to be learned from incidents at two nuclear plants, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials.
* ''More top-level management involvement in the operation of nuclear power, ''is needed, says Richard Sniezik, a senior NRC official.
* Tube corrosion, the cause of a recent accident in New York, is likely to occur in other commercial reactors, says another NRC official, Richard Starostecki.
Two events in the past two weeks pointed up the need to learn these lessons.
On Jan. 25, the Robert E. Ginna nuclear plant in Ontario, N.Y., was shut down after a ruptured steam pipe allowed radioactive water to enter the coolant system and escape the plant as puffs of radioactive steam.
The plant was declared a ''site area emergency,'' and a special team of operators took over, only to face a far greater danger in a stuck valve. Water in the reactor started to boil and a steam bubble began to form, threatening to uncover the reactor core. That raised the possibility of a meltdown. Fortunately , says the NRC, plant technicians ''handled the problem very well'' and, with the help of a functioning backup valve, ended the emergency.
According to commission officials, the ruptured pipe problem has occcured three times before in steam generator-type nuclear plants, of which there are 48 across the country. More than two-thirds of this type of reactor have experienced similar difficulties (this includes Three Mile Island No. 2 plant in Pennsylvania).
And on Jan. 18, the NRC proposed its largest-ever civil penalty, $550,000, against Boston Edison Company, for safety violations at their Pilgrim I nuclear plant. In addition, it was ordered to conduct, within 30 days, a complete review of all safety-related activities and hire an independent investigators to probe its own management structure.
The reason for the fine centers around the hydrogen control system at the company's Pilgrim plant in Plymouth, Mass. The utility, the NRC charged, unknowingly allowed the system to remain below government standards for 31 months. During that period, on Oct. 19, 1979, Edison reported to the NRC that the system did comply with regulations. When the company finally uncovered the problem, in March '81, it failed to tell the commission for almost 14 months.
In addition, the NRC report said that between Sep. 12 and Sep. 15 of last year the management permitted the plant to operate without assurance that two valves in the reactor core isolation cooling system would close properly in an emergency situation.
Reaction to these events has been mixed, and there is a continuing controversy over their meaning for the future of atomic power.
Henry Kendall, a nuclear physicist and chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., says, ''The Ginna plant, by some odd coincidence , is the plant in which the original problem with steam generator tubes surfaced.'' He charges that for 10 years the NRC and the industry have known about the problem and have not corrected it. Mr. Kendall says that ''the weaknesses in the steam generator tubes can set the scene for a total core meltdown and a catastrophic release of radioactivity.''
Carl Goldstein, assistant vice-president of the Atomic Industrial Forum, an industry association and voice, disagrees with Kendall's assessment, calling tube ruptures a ''well-established phenomenon'' and claiming, ''The consequences are not that serious. We've had this problem for a long time, we've been studying it, and there are ways to deal with it.''
Richard Starostecki, NRC division director of resident and project inspection , Region 1, says that the commission already has inspection programs of the tubes in progress. ''One of the results of Ginna may be more and better inspection programs.'' Nonetheless, he says ''I wouldn't be surprised if another of these types of problems occurs again.''
Kendall calls the management problems that drew the fine at Pilgrim ''not at all uncommon'' among the utilties that run nuclear power plants. ''They reflect in part the failure of the utilties to recognize the risks involved in the way they do business. There, in a nutshell, you have the nuclear problem: unparalleled risks in the civilian domain and a continuing irresponsibility to cope with the problems.''
Mr. Goldstein counters that the industry is overregulated by the NRC, cannot keep up with regulations, and, hence, gets caught. But, Mr. Starostecki says, Edison's president met personally with the NRC and announce that the company had been having ''high-level board meetings to increase the number of vice-presidents such that they could devote more upper-level attention'' to the operation of the plant.
Overall, Starostecki is encouraged by reports from his resident inspectors that many utilities are ''taking the lesson from Ginna and Pilgrim and checking generator tubes and reassessing management practices.''