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A fresh start at Three Mile Island?

After almost six years of hearings, investigations and legal disputes, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last week voted 4-1 in favor of allowing the undamaged unit (TMI-1) of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant to begin operating again as soon as June 11. TMI-1 has been shut down since a catastrophic accident struck its nearby twin, TMI-2, in March 1979.

The decision, however, was immediately challenged when the state of Pennsylvania and Three Mile Island Alert, a Harrisburg-based citizens' group, filed separate petitions with the federal appeals court in Philadelphia. Both petitions contend that NRC did not have enough information to make a proper decision and that further hearings are necessary. The chief doubts center on whether General Public Utilities Corp. (GPU) has the "character and integrity" to operate a nuclear power plant safely.

Says Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh, "Until we can be assured that the plant can be safely and competently operated, no action to open the plant should be taken."

"GPU is not fit to hold a license to operate TMI-1," insists Ellyn R. weiss, general counsel for the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Washington, D.C. She points to evidence of reactor operators who cheated on their qualifying exams, allegedly false testimony from GPU officials at congressional hearings, harassment of workers involved in the TMI-2 cleanup, and the conviction of Metropolitan Edison Co. (the GPU subsidiary that originally operated TMI) for falsifying leak-rate data.

GPU officials say that TMI's new operator, another subsidiary called GPU Nuclear, "is ready and able to operate TMI-1 safely." Says GPU Chairman William G. Kuhns, "It has not been a quick fix, rather a deliberate, thoughtful program of developing what we want to be the finest nuclear operation in the country."

NRC's General Counsel Herzel Plaine, in his report to NRC, agrees that management faults have been corrected. GPU Nuclear "represents a significantly improved organization over Metropolitan Edison Co.," he says. But critics say that GPU has merely shuffled individuals around.

Moreover, the path NRC followed to come to a decision is itself controversial. "The NRC's administrative process on the restart of TMI-1 has often appeared tangled and confused with partial initial decisions leading to appeals, resulting in reopened and remanded hearings at every turn," says Rep. Don Ritter (R-Pa.).

At the time of the TMI-2 accident, TMI-1 had been shut down for routine refueling. That summer, NRC issued two orders that kept TMI-1 cloed and specified which issues had to be resolved before the plant could restart. Most of the work fell to NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which looked at the problems one by one and issued "partial initial decisions" as each problem was cleared up to its satisfaction.

Last February, a majority of NRC's five commissioners decided that all of the major issues had been settled and that no further hearings were necessary. But two commissioners were sharply critical of that decision.

Commissioner James K. asselstine, who voted against the restart order, argues that the NRC either ignored or discounted important issues. "The Commission's decision-making process and its refusal to allow further hearings has not promoted public confidence," says Asselstine.

Commissioner Frederick M. Bernthal also criticizes what he calls NRC's "unwise and ill-considered path," although he voted in favor of restart on technical grounds. "I suspect that only the lawyers may delight in the decision," he says, "because their future is assured."

And many residents of Dauphin County, where TMI is located, are worried. "Doesn't the NRC understand that keeping TMI closed is the only way we can gain the peace of mind that we lost over six years ago?" asks County Commissioner Larry Hochendoner.

Nevertheless, unless the federal court delays implementation of NRC's restart order and if two NRC-imposed conditions are met, at noon on June 11, TMI-1 operators will have the authority to start producing power again.
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Title Annotation:undamaged unit may resume operation
Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 8, 1985
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