Two of President Carter's three nominees ot the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission favor at least in part the Clinch River breeder reactor project that Carter wants ended.
The commission, which licenses nuclear power plants, could conceivably end up having to rule on the $2.2 billion project, so Carter's nominees are reluctant to detail how they might vote.
But based on what the nominees have said during recent Senate confirmation hearings, industry critics say a majority on the commission would support Clinch River, the experimental nuclear power plant in Tennessee that would burn plutonium.
Many in the nuclear industry want to switch from today's uranium-powered plants to more sophisticated reactors that burn and at the same time breed plutonium. They fear that eventually the United States will run out of uranium.
Carter, however, opposes the use of plutonium in nuclear plants because it is also used for manufacturing nuclear weapons and could be extremely dangerous in the hands of, for example, terrorist groups. In April, Carter asked other technoliogically advanced nations to help stop the spread of the highly poisonous substance.
But one of Carter's nominess to the NRC, Kent Hansen, a nuclear engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works last week that he disagreea iwith Carter on breeder reactors and that Clinch River "should be built."
Carter's nominee for chairman of the NRC is Joseph Hendrie, a nuclear physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. He told the committee yesterday that if Carter had asked him for advise before deciding to stop the project he would have "tiled slightly" toward going ahead with it.
Hendrie said he now agrees with the President but also said that Carter should "maintain the pace of research on the breeder." He said that nuclear reactors have "an exceedingly important role to play" as an energy source and that the United States should preserve the option of fast breeder technology.
Peter Bradford, Carter's nominee, also testified at the confirmation hearing yesterday and said he supports Carter's position. He said that if he were a senator, he would have voted against Clinch River. Bradford is a member fof Maine's Public Utilities Commission.
Three representatives from public advocacy groups testified against the nominations of Hansen and Hendrie. Two of them, John Abbotts of Public Interest Research Group, a Ralph Nader organizations, and James Cubie of New Directions, said in interviews that the new commission would lean towards approving the Clinch River project and breeder reactors by a 3-2 vote "at the least." They agreed that, of the two present commissioners, Richard Kennedy would probably vote with Hansen and Hendrie for the breeder, and Victor Gilinsky would probably join Bradford in disenting.
Cubie said Carter was "badly advised" on the nominations by James Schlesinger, his top energy adviser and a former chairman of the Atomic Eneregy Commission.
"Schlesinger is putting in some people on the basis of lod relationships he had at AEC," Cubie said. "At that time and in that context they were good people. But they don't reflect the new directions of atomic energy policy."
There is considerable support for the Clinch River project in Congress. Last week the Senate voted not to fund it for the time being, but some provision to preserve at least a minimal project appears likely. Cubie said that if Congress voted money for Clinch River, it would still have to be license by the NRC.
"This was Carter's ace in the hole and he's giving it up," Cubie said. "With Hendrie as chairman, ti's business as usual . . . And it's a signal to the light water reactor industry [the technology now used in nuclear plants] that it's clear sailing ahead."
The panelists also criticized Hendrie and Hanzen for what they said was insensitivity to the "revolving door syndrome," in which regulators come from the industry they regulate. Under quentioning from Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Hendrie said he was "neither surprised nor upset" that 65 per cent of the NRC staff came from the nuclear industry. Hansen earlier had testified that he had no idea the figure was that high.
Bradford who was praised by the panelists and by his home-state senators. Edmund Muskie and William Hathaway of Maine, said what is needed is "meaningful public input." He supported public funding for intervenor groups that testify against the views of the nuclear industry at commission hearnings.