How much risk is the public willing to accept to have electricity from nuclear power?
This is the question the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is asking in its current round of public hearings on establishing a safety goal. A former NRC commissioner says the goal being proposed would classify the possibility of l3, 000 deaths from nuclear power plant accidents during the next 30 years or so as an ''acceptable risk.''
Other NRC commissioners say this estimate, prepared by the NRC staff, is too high, but they refuse to offer their own figures. Further, the NRC has refused to include the risk estimate in the formal statement about the safety goal, an omission one NRC commissioner criticizes.
''To whom is (this) 'acceptable risk' acceptable to?'' asked Helen T. Reed, on behalf of the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, at the NRC's hearing here - the first of four public hearings across the country.
''The safety goal should not be a license to commit murder,'' says Lavinia George, a nuclear power foe and attorney in Forest Park, Ga. The risks ''in exchange for some -electricity'' are not worth it, she told the NRC hearing panel.
But NRC officials, and the goal report itself, say that the safety goal is to ensure that the fatality risk to people living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant will be .01 percent the risk of death that Americans face from all otherr sources.
But it is unclear just how the goal would be applied to make nuclear plants safer.
In remarks at the hearing here, Forrest J. Remick, director of the NRC's office of policy evaluation, said there is a 45 percent chance that during the 30-year lifetimes of the nearly 150 nuclear power plants existing or being constructed, a core melt will occur in one of them. So far, 74 plants have been completed, 71 are under construction, and several have not been licensed for construction.
A core melt, considered the most serious type of disaster inside a nuclear plant, involves destruction of the radioactive core in the reactor. Dr. Remick says plants are designed to contain the released radioactive material, so the material ''might not get out.''
But both proponents and critics of nuclear power are concerned about what would happen if the material does get out. That concern is one of the main issues addressed by the safety goals - the deaths that might occur in what officially is considered a very remote chance that radioactive material will escape from a plant.
Another of the NRC's proposed safety goals spells out guidelines for deciding - on the basis of cost in relation to the reduced risk of radiation exposure - what additional safety requirements are needed at nuclear plants.
Ellyn Weiss, general counsel for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the cost-benefit analysis will be used by the nuclear industry ''to fight any additions in safety requirements.''
But one nuclear industry spokesman, Robert Szalay, vice-president of the Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF), says the cost-benefit goal can help avoid large expenditures for something that is not going to provide an appropriate increase in safety. He calls the NRC's proposed safety goals a ''positive step forward in improving the regulatory process.'' He points out there have been ''a large number of deaths'' associated with non-nuclear sources of power, including coal and hydroelectric projects (dam failures).
Predicting risks is still ''an extremely uncertain art,'' says Malcolm Ernst, a member of the NRC Safety Goal Task Force. The NRC's safety goals were reached through ''negotiations'' among risk assessment specialists, according to Dr. Remick.
NRC commissioner Dr. Victor Gilinsky calls the goal ''too general'' and ''too abstract'' to be of practical use in making nuclear plants safer.
Until now, the federal government has not attempted to specify the degree of risk involved in nuclear power plants. The NRC has written volumes of safety regulations to reduce risks, but has never made official estimates of the fatalities that might occur from plant accidents.
But earlier this year, in a follow-up to the Three Mile -Island power plant accident in 1979, the NRC released the -proposed safety goal for nuclear plants. The NRC held a -public hearing in Boston April 29 and plans others in Los Angeles (May 3) and Chicago (May 5) to hear debate before the -commissioners vote to accept or reject safety goal proposals.
So far, written public comments (accepted until May 18 in Washington) have been few, and attendance at the Atlanta hearing was sparse.