Wrong turn for nuclear policy

THE Reagan administration and some in Congress have long been frustrated over opposition to the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States. That may help explain two recent presidential executive orders, but it doesn't justify them. One order requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to draw up emergency evacuation plans for nuclear power plants whenever state or local governments balk at the task. The other asks the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to devise plans for a federal takeover of civilian reactors in times of national emergency.

The FEMA order is ill-advised. State and local governments traditionally and properly have played the major role in developing evacuation plans for NRC approval. The plans are required before plants can operate at full power. Opponents of nuclear plants have used this to their advantage: They have built support among the public and state and local governments for refusal to draft plans or to conduct drills. And they have used the courts to challenge federal attempts to work around local opposition. These techniques have stalled the licensing of the Shoreham plant on New York's Long Island, and Seabrook in New Hampshire.

FEMA's expanded role, however, is at best redundant. Currently, if state and local governments fail to come up with a plan, the utility operating the nuclear plant picks up the task.

The order smacks of the federal government's trying to reduce local participation in the planning process. It is hard to imagine that FEMA wouldn't solicit public views in forming a plan. The NRC also allows for public participation when deciding on the merits of an evacuation plan. But FEMA's role is active: Devise a plan. Fewer checks and balances are available than when working through state and local government.

Nuclear energy in the US is throttled as much by perception as by fact. The executive order presents no major improvement and fuels the perception of a reduced role for the public.

As for planning for government takeover of civilian reactors in a national emergency, the rationale is absurd.

The only national emergency where that kind of takeover is conceivable is war. In 1954, when the government first gave itself the takeover authority, nuclear arsenals were small; weapons were delivered largely by slow manned bombers. If one was tempted to think the unthinkable, it was possible, if not probable, to foresee a need to make nuclear weapons even after the bombs started falling. Civilian reactors could provide feed material for nuclear weapons if some federal plants got knocked out early.

But with today's glut of warheads and their half-hour delivery time, it is unrealistic to think that weapons production would continue much beyond the first 45 minutes of an exchange, if that long. Even if one declared a national emergency weeks in advance of a war, that's hardly time to add significantly to an already bloated nuclear stockpile.

The order also positions the US to violate the spirit of Article III, Section 1 of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it has long championed. The provision forbids countries that have signed the treaty but have no nuclear weapons from diverting nuclear materials to military uses.

The incoming Bush administration should seriously consider rescinding both presidential directives.

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