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Controversy over nuclear evacuation planning.

Controversy Over Nuclear Evacuation Planning

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission(NRC) has historically interpreted the Atomic Energy Act as giving the agency the exclusive authority to license and set safety standards for nuclear plants. For the past six years, however, state and local governments have effectively been able to exercise veto power over the startup of new nuclear power plants, merely by failing to develop or approve emergency-evacuation plans for residents within 10 miles of such plants.

This de facto veto power enables stateand local governments to impose their own, separate licensing standards on plant owners. NRC officials last week proposed removing such power by eliminating the 1980 requirement that nuclear plant licensing be contingent upon state and local government participation in emergency-evacuation planning. Though the proposal has been applauded by nuclear utilities, it is raising protests from lawmakers at all levels of government.

A number of Massachusetts legislators,for example, see the new NRC proposal as a challenge to states' rights, which have already been tested by their governor, Michael Dukakis. Though the completed Seabrook nuclear plant resides in New Hampshire, some Massachusetts residents live only about two miles away. On Sept. 30, 1986, Dukakis refused to approve its evacuation plan when he decided he could not be sure his residents could be evacuated to safety during a severe accident. This has prevented the plant from obtaining an operating license.

But the new NRC proposal would allowthe New Hampshire utility that owns Seabrook to certify Massachusetts's ability to safely evacuate its residents--a clear usurpation of states' rights, according to State Rep. Lawrence R. Alexander, House chairman of the Massachusetts legislature's Joint Energy Committee.

Sen. John R. Kerry (D-Mass.) agrees.Explains Kerry's legislative assistant, John Dukakis (the governor's son), "State and local governments are really the only [ones] who can judge whether public safety can be protected in an emergency.' Kerry, he says, may challenge the idea that responsibility for nuclear safety should remain an exclusive domain of the federal government.

A bill Kerry introduced last monthwould amend the Atomic Energy Act so that nuclear plant licenses could not be granted without the written approval of each governor having constituents within a plant's 10-mile emergency-evacuation planning zone (EPZ). Moreover, the bill would prohibit reducing the EPZ for existing plants and would mandate a minimum EPZ of 10 miles for new plants.

The EPZ-reduction issue was promptedby a Dec. 18 petition to NRC by Seabrook's owners. In it, they argue that the plant's superior safety design warrants cutting its EPZ from 10 miles to 1 mile--a move that, not coincidently, would cut out Massachusetts's role in Seabrook's holdup.

Similar bills have been authored bySen. Gordon Humphrey (R-N.H.) and Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.). However, unlike Kerry, Humphrey and Moynihan see the NRC proposal as a bigger challenge to nuclear safety than to states' rights. Humphrey has noted that even NRC has argued that emergency planning should be considered in addition to, rather than in lieu of, engineered safety.

Adoption of the current NRC proposalrequires only the approval of a majority of NRC's commissioners. However, many on Capitol Hill suspect that final approval of such a measure might galvanize congressional action to rewrite the Atomic Energy Act in such a way that states would be handed back the veto power NRC would take away. NRC officials this week declined to comment further on the matter.
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Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 14, 1987
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