If a Chernobyl-style nuclear disaster occurs at one of America's nuclear-power plants, victims and their families could suffer financially as well as physically, if Congress renews the limited-liability law. The Price-Anderson Act, passed in 1957 and renewed in 1967 and 1977, limits a nuclear plant operator's liability to $700 million for a single accident. This sum wouldn't begin to cover the deaths, injuries and property damage that would result from a nuclear meltdown, especially at a plant located in a densely populated area.

In fact, the General Accounting Office estimated last June last June that catastrophic nuclear accident would cause $15 billion damage under average weather conditions. Heavy weather that spreads radiation over a wider area could increase the damage to as much as $150 billion, the GAO figured.

Despite these appalling possibilities, Congress in considering a renewal of Price-Anderson that, although greatly increasing the cap on liability, still wouldn't come close to raising it to a realistic level. The House passed a renewal bill July 30 that raises the single-accident liability to $7.4 billion.

How does the nuclear power industry to manage to maintain such clout? The crucial factor may be cold, hard and green.

Nuclear power lobbyists outspent their opponents by roughly 6 to 1 during the six-month period from last November to April. According to Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, nuclear industry lobbyists spent $356,797, while environmental and public-interest groups spent $61,667. During the same period, the industry fielded eight times as many lobbyists as Price-Anderson opponents did.

Even more disturbing are the sizable sums that key members of Congress receive for speaking to nuclear industry gatherings. These "honorariums" go directly into the politicians' pockets and often require the honorable member to do little more than clear his throat at the lecturn.

Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) has been a recipient of the nuclear industry's largess. As chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Commitee, Johnston is expected to lead the fight to renew Price-Anderson in the Senate.

Our reporters, Stewart Harris and Jennifer Smith, reviewed the senator's financial disclosure file and found that in 1986 he was paid a total of $11,000 for six appearances before nuclear-related groups. Among the companies that paid Johnston were General Electric, Westinghouse, Edison Electric and Pacific Gas and Electric.

Nuclear utilities and their contractors have also plowed millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of sympathetic members of Congress through corporate political action committees (PACs).

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a vociferous and determined opponent of Price-Anderson renewal, analyzed the industry's campaign donations. Among other things, the researchers found that members of Congress who voted for renewal of the industry-subsidizing law routinely got two to three times as much in contributions from nuclear power PACS as those who voted against.