Reagan's nuclear industry 'recharge' generates debate

President Reagan is backing up his long-standing rhetorical support for nuclear with action that is sure to cheer its proponents. But his recently announced plan to revive the faltering nuclear industry is not without its opponents, who are especially troubled by what they see as the increased possibility of nuclear weapons proliferation as a result.

The President also has promised massive federal assistance to help clean up the remains of th worst nuclear accident in US history, at Three Mile island, as a sweetener to those communities where future nuclear power plants might be built.But state and local officials may ben even more interested in a recent federal appeals court ruling upholding the right of states to determine whether such plants may be located within their borders.

As announced by Energy Secretary James B. Edwards, the Reagan plan to promote nuclear power includes:

* Lifting a ban on the commercial reprocessing of used nuclear fuel. Such reprocessing results in radioactive plutonium, which can be used as further reactor fuel or in nuclear weapons. Former Presidents Ford and Carter had blocked such reporcessing, concerned that it could spread to other countries and ultimately lead to more nuclear weapons being built abroad.

* Completing the controversial Clinch River breeder reactor in Tennessee, which would produce (or "breed") more plutonium than it uses.

* Speed up the government licensing of nuclear power plants to reduce the approval period to six to eight years. Such licensing now takes as long as 14 years.

It has been several years since any new nuclear power plants have been ordered. Lower estimates of future energy use, escalating construction costs, and government regulations, have contributed to the slowdown.

These concerns are sure to be raised as the nuclear debate continues on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, (D) of Massachussetts calls the Reagan plan a "program of nuclear boosterism and government internvention to aid the sagging nuclear industry."

Administration officials have not ruled out using reprocessed nuclear fuel to make atomic weapons in this country. Consumer activist Ralph Nader says such reprocessing will "creat an artificial market for plutonium [that could] exacerbate the proliferation of nuclear weapons worldwide."

The administration will encourage the marketing of plutonium in Europe, a move critics say could add to nuclear weapons proliferation outside the United States.

Pennsylvania Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh has been urging a "cost sharing" plan to finance the $1 billion-plus decontamination of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa. He apparently has won White House support. Budget director David A. Stockman says the administration now plans to spend "in excess of $100 million" for the cleanup effort.

The administration push for nuclear power may run into serious roadblocks outside Washington, however. a federal appeals court in Los Angeles said last week that states have the "inherent" right to stop power plant construction that is "inconsistent" with that state's energy, economic, or environmental goals.

The nuclear and utility industries argue that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has ulitimate say in such matters. But the federal appeals court ruled that "the states are permitted to treat nuclear plants exactly as they would all other power plants."

States may . . . establish emission standards more stringent than those imposed by the NRC," court said.

The case is certain to be taken up by the US Supreme Court, where federal dominance in such matters could be reasserted. But as an indication of the trouble the Reagan administration faces with its nuclear power policy, 23 states filed "friend of the court" briefs and sided with California on behalf of states' rights.

Thus, while NRC chairman Nunzio Palladino promises "an unprecedented pace of licensing" for the 33 nuclear power plants recently completed or nearly finsihed , nuclear power's opponents may yet have the final word.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.