A SAN EXAMPLE of reasonable and orderly public policy, the case of the Seabrook nuclear reactor is ludicrous. Now, two years after it issued the construction permits, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has querulously suspended them, again, while it considers, again, whether the plant is being built in the right place. It's more than just bad administration. The procedural tangle indicates deep indecision on basic energy issues throughout the government and the country.Officials who don't like the substantive questions are fighting guerrilla warfare through the procedural thickets. The country is not moving toward a consensus regarding nuclear power but rather, if we are right in taking Seabrook as an indicator, the differences of opinion are becoming deeper.
Seabrook, a large plant under construction on the New Hampshire coast, is far from unique. There are more than two dozen nuclear stations of the same or larger scale under construction, or even in operation, throughout the country. For reasons that are local as well as general, Seabrook has become a symbol.
It was more than five years ago that the builder, the Public Service Company of new Hampshire, submitted its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC issued construction permits in mid-1976. But in November 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency's regional director reversed himself and withdrew his previous approval of a cooling system using seawater. That reopened the question of the site, because none of the site reviews had contemplated any other cooling system. In February 1977, the NRC suspended the construction permits. Through the spring and summer, incidentally, there were large protest demonstrations at the site.
In June 1977 the head of the EPA, Douglas Costle, overruled his regional director and approved seawater cooling.In July, the NRC's licensing board arrived at a finding that no alternative site was preferable. The NRC then reinstated the construction permits. But there was a court challenge to the Costle decision, and last February a federal court of appeals overturned it on procedural grounds. In April an appeals board within the NRC found that the licensing board's review of the site issue had been inadequate. And that - if you are still with us - has led the NRC to suspend the construction permits a second time. There the matter will presumably rest while Mr. Costle makes up his mind once again, by an improved procedure, and the divided NNRC undertakes still another site review.
The Carter administration wants legislation to speed up the nuclear-licensing process. But the licensing of a large nuclear reactor is properly a long and arduous process. It is right for the regulators to set very wide limits on the inquiry and to review health and environmental questions with care. The fault in the present procedure is not merely that it is slow, but that it also seems not to produce firm decisions.
The NRC last year said that the Seabrook case "has been widely depicted as a serious failure of governmental process to resolve central issues . . . a paradigm of fragmented and uncoordinated government decision-making on energy matters and of a system strangling itself and the economy in red tape." The NRC repeated that description in its latest decision, acknowledging unhappily that it remains valid today. It remains valid, we might add, as a description of wider areas of American energy policy than nuclear licensing alone.