Switching on nuclear power -- safely

Nunzio Palladino may not yet be a familiar name to most Americans. But now that Mr. Palladino has been confirmed by Congress as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, his name may soon be as well known throughout the world as it is in that part of Pennsylvania where he has been dean of engineering at Pennsylvania State University.

In selecting the pronuclear Mr. Palladino to head up the troubled NRC, the Reagan adminstration faces a unique opportunity -- and a grave responsibility.

At a time when reliance on nuclear power is increasingly questioned by America's nuclear allies -- such as France, where the new President, Francois Mitterrand, has called for a review of nuclear development -- Reagan administration officials are still quietly upbeat about the future of nuclear power in the US. Mr. Palladino, an expert on reactor safety, has called for a speedup in the licensing of nuclear facilities. In great part because of the 1979 Three Mile Island incident the NRC was forced to divert personnel away from licensing to more immediate safety concerns. That meant a slowdown in approvals. The commission has sought to rectify that situation in recent months by revising licensing, but still has not done enough to satisfy industry officials. Further, the NRC commissioners themselves have been deeply divided about the extent to which the US would hasten nuclear power.

That is why the NRC's role under Mr. Palladino will be so crucial. While the commission should expedite bearings on those new plants now coming on line -- some 13 of them are in the competition stage and by 1983 will join the 72 sites currently operating throughout the US -- it must still take all possible measures to ensure that safety is not minimized in the name of regulatory reform. Nuclear power, with its awesome potential for catastrophe, is one of those industries where margins of safety should be subject to the most exact technical calculations. There is also some questions as to what extent government regulations may actually inhibit construction projects. A recent study by the Western Governor's Policy Office suggests that other factors, such as vendor and labor- related problems, help explain delays on new plants.

The Reagan administration will have a working majority on the five-member NRC by mid-1982 when industry critic Peter Bradford steps down from the commission. It could, in fact, have a working majority in place later this year. One commissioner slot is currently unfilled. The administration has indicated its intention to nominate Tennessee businessman Thomas Roberts to the post. That means that by successfully wooing over to its side one sitting commissioner the Reagan administration could have the independent agency reflecting its own nuclear stance this year, as well as end the 2-2 split that has marked most crucial commission deliberations in past months.

The controversial issue of licensing, which has troubled the present commission, is harldy inconsequential. Industry officials argue that continued licensing delays could cost consumers over $1.5 billion in stiffer fuel bills, as well as lead to a loss of close to $800 million in additional interest charges for industry. Mr. Palladino, for his part, favors having the commission grant interim licenses pending final NRC review of all regulatory measures so long as basic safety standards are met, a procedure that has been approved by several congressional oversight committees.

Meantime, the administration, which substantially hiked the Carter administration's 1982 nuclear development budget from roughly $900 million to about $1.3 billion, is expected to issue a major nuclear policy statement before long. There is a question, however, as to whether the administration is yet facing up to the different question of how to deal with nuclear waste.

Nuclear power should continue to play an appropriate role in the overall US energy equation. Clearly the US does need to reform the regulatory process to get pending sites "on line." But that revision must not come at the expense of stringent safety requirements, which after all protect not only the American people but the nuclear industry itself.

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