Who should shape policy for nuclear power plants?

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Here's a test question to separate US scientists and energy experts from the rest of the citizens. Is national policy for nuclear power primarily an engineering issue, or does it have major economic, political, and environmental, aspects?

According to a survey by George Washington University political scientists S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, scientists as a whole are ''united with their (energy specialist) colleagues in placing technical and engineering considerations well above all others.'' ''They give short shift (cq) to either political or moral aspects of this issue,'' Lichter and Rothman write in a recent issue of Nature.

It's no wonder that both boosters and opponents of nuclear power seem so often to be talking past each other. If more than a decade of debate and confrontation in this field has taught anything, it is that a great number of nontechnical citizens, legislators, and other government officials believe the economic, environmental, and political issues of nuclear power to be paramount.

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Apparently, neither energy specialists nor scientists generally have gotten that message. They seem to discount the fact that many of their fellow citizens do not share their faith in technical expertise.

Lichter and Rothman note that, until now, there have been no studies of the attitudes toward nuclear power held within the scientific community as a whole. Their findings are based on responses to a questionnaire circulated between March and October of 1980. That was about a year after the accident at Three Mile Island. Respondents included 358 energy specialists and 741 scientists in a wide variety of fields.

A large majority of both groups favors moving ahead with nuclear power. Some 70 percent of the energy experts and 53 percent of the general scientists would move rapidly, while an additional 25 percent of the specialists and 36 percent of the scientists would move slowly. Only a tiny minority would halt development or dismantle existing plants.

Lichter and Rothman report that many scientists see serious problems. These, however, relate mainly to such strategic matters as radioactive waste disposal and the quality of training of power-plant personnel. On matters of day-to-day safety and environmental risks, there is relatively little concern. Lichter and Rothman explain that ''our survey suggests most (scientists) believe that we already possess the knowledge to solve the problems that exist.'' So they consider the public policy issues raised by nuclear power to be primarily technical. The energy experts are even more strongly of this opinion.

Lichter and Rothman add that scientists by no means believe that nuclear power policy should be left to the experts. But they do ''tend to assign major roles to people they regard as knowledgeable.'' Thus they want public policy to be guided strongly by expert opinion. They have a much higher regard for the ''informed'' public than for the ''general'' public.

Clearly, there is a perception gap between US scientists and engineers and the rest of the citizens. Conditioned by education and professional experience, scientists and engineers respect technical knowledge. If the knowledge to solve nuclear power's problems exists, or can easily be gained, they have faith that it will be used. But many of their fellow citizens are conditioned by experience to think otherwise.

Within days of the publication of the Lichter/Rothman report, for example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said some of the cleanup procedures at Three Mile Island were improper. And the NRC itself came under fire for having allowed the utility to review its Three Mile Island accident report in advance of publication.

To the technically minded, it may not be ''logical'' to allow such incidents to tarnish one's faith in the scientific and engineering knowledge that underlies nuclear power. But to nontechnical citizens, who have seen a string of such discouraging incidents over many years, it is not ''logical'' to assume that sound knowledge will be properly applied.

The views of scientists and engineers better able to assess technical factors than many citizens are badly needed in resolving nuclear power issues. But until these ''technical types'' wake up to the fact that these issues are highly political - infused with genuine concern for safety and environmental risk - it is their views that will be discounted. Ozone harms wheat

Botanists have long known that air pollution is hardly the farmer's friend. Now a Cornell University study has shown just how devastating ozone from auto pollution can be to the wheat crop.

According to the Cornell research team, productivity of a widely used variety of winter wheat falls by 10 to 25 percent under ozone attack. This wheat, called Vona, suffers from premature aging under ozone concentrations typical of southern California. While this appears to be the most ozone sensitive of eight wheat varieties tested, it also is the one most widely used.

Ozone is a form of oxygen whose molecules are made up of three atoms each. It is produced in air when solar ultraviolet radiation acts on pollution from auto exhausts. In high concentrations, it is a toxic gas. And, even in fairly low concentrations, it causes some materials, such as rubber, to deterioriate.

The Cornell research is part of a project sponsored by the National Crop-Loss Assessment Network of the Environmental Protection Agency, which investigates the effect of air pollution on agriculture. The Cornell workers expect to continue their studies to include the effects of sulfur pollution and of ozone and sulfur pollution in combination.

Their findings will also have to be refined to take account of the differences between pollution levels typical of urban areas and those prevailing in the wheat belt. They expect, eventually, to be able to estimate the economic losses such air pollution may cause farmers.

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