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NRC Calls for Licensing Rule Change

Regulations Could Open Controversial Power Plants


WASHINGTON--The staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended yesterday that the agency adopt a controversial rules change that would enable it to license nuclear power plants over the objections of state and local officials.

The proposed modification in emergency planning standards is designed principally to facilitate the startup of two $5 billion reactors on the East Coast--Seabrook in New Hampshire and Shoreham on Long Island, N.Y.--despite claims by local authorities that area residents could not be evacuated safely in the event of a serious accident.

Current NRC rules virtually preclude licensing a nuclear plant unless state and local officials cooperate in emergency planning for residents within a 10-mile radius. The proposed change would allow the commission to approve evacuation plans drawn up solely by the utilities, if local officials balk.

The issue has produced heated debate in Congress and an unprecedented flood of public and industry arguments to the NRC itself.

Since publishing the proposal last February, the commission has received statements from 11,500 people, with 5400 in favor of the rules change and 5600 opposed. In addition, opponents submitted 27,000 from letters and petitions containing 16,300 names.

The five-member commission is scheduled to meet next Thursday to discuss its options on the issue, but no date has been set for a final vote.

In a working paper submitted to the commission yesterday, General Counsel William C. Parler and Executive Director Victor Stello urged that the new rule be approved "with modifications and make clear that no diminution of public protection is intended."

Leading opponents of the two reactors include Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, whose state includes several communities within Seabrook's 10-mile emergency planning zone, and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Both have withheld the requisite guarantees of emergency assistance on ground that no evacuation plan could adequately protect the public in the congested resort areas.

But Parler and Stello argued, in effect, that the NRC shouldn't get hung up over idle threats regarding the availability of emergency services. Instead, they said, the proposed rule incorporates "the `realism doctrine,' which observes...that in an emergency, state and local authorities will act to protect public health and safety."

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) attempted in August to bar the NRC from enacting the rules change, but his legislation was defeated 261-160 in the House.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which must evaluate the evacuation plans submitted to the NRC, has expressed reservations about any system that lacks state and local cooperation. But Parler and Stello, who met with FEMA officials earlier this month, said the sister agency had not foreclosed acceptance of a utility-drawn plan.

A week ago, NRC Chairman Lando Zech stressed that even if the rules change is adopted, "the commission must still find with reasonable assurance that the public health and safety can be protected before issuing a full-power license for a nuclear power plant. The preferred course of action most certainly is to have state and local participation in emergency planning."

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