The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to impose strong new controls on nuclear power but refused to go along with any kind of moratorium on new reactors.
defendand critics of nuclear power claimed victories after two days of heated debate on amendments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fiscal 1980 authorization. The amendments aired most of the major issues in the nuclear controversy, and the product "shows the Senate is willing to go to a certain point and not much farther," as Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) put it.
The final vote was 97 to 1.
"The Senate you saw voting on this bill was a different Senate than it was a year ago," said Hart, who shepherded the measure through the upper chamber. "This was the first reform vehicle after Three Mile Island."
The bill which differs greatly from similar measures pending in the House, provides $398.3 million for beefed-up NRC action in research,inspection of reactors, enforcement of its regulations and action on state emergency plans. It would shut down nuclear reactors in states without NRC-approved emergency plans by June 1, 1980, and would give the NRC authority for the first time to seek criminal penalties against operators or others who knowingly violate safety rules.
An attempt by Hart and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to impose a six-month moratorium on new reactor construction failed lengthy discussion, 35 to 57. An amendment to give states veto power over any proposed site inside their borders for the storage of nuclear waste was tabled, and thereby defeated, 55 to 37, after Hart opposed it. His subcommittee on energy, which has jurisdiction over the NCR, is planning a waste siting bill in the next few months.
"Before Three Mile Island we would have got only a dozen votes on Kennedy's (moratorium) bill," Said Peter Franchot of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of nuclear critics based in Massachusetts. "The votes indicate a fundamental shift in the Senate from unquestioning support for nuclear power to increasing skepticism."
The American Nuclear Energy Council, the industry 's lobbying arm, was "encouraged overall" by the outcome, according to its executive vice president, George Gleason. "The Senate recognises the value of nuclear power. . .Most of the bill responds in a constructive way to Three Mile Island." ANEC was "very upset,"however, at the provision requiring states to have emergency plans in effect by June 1, 1980, in order to keep their reactors operating. That aspect is likely to be modified when the bill goes into conference with the House version, Gleason said.
The house version is not expected to be ready for a vote until after next month's congressional recess. One variation contains a six-month moratorium and backers plan to continue the flight for it.
In yesterday's debate, Kennedy compared nuclear power plants to drugs that "ought to be made safe for people. . . before you put them on the market." The six-month ban, he said, would buy time to perfect the new regulations before allowing any new construction to begin. Opponents called the moratorium an attempt "to kill off nuclear power . . . while we flounder in an energy crisic."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in two votes Monday, unanimously opposed both the moratorium and an attempt by Sen. George McGovern (D.S.D.) to give states a veto over waste siting. The NCR staff has already instituted an informal three-month freeze on new reactors, and the NRC argued that it can be extended if needed. The commissioners said they prefer siting to be subject to congressional rather than state decision.
No one had expected an amendment from Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) to provide criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly violates nuclear safety standards. A Hart staff member recalled that the same idea was dropped from legislation that set up the NRC in 1974, but it passed yesterday in the Senate's new mood, 60 to 32.
Other provisions of the Senate bill would provide $25 million extra for research above the NRC's request; ban the dumping of radioactive waste at sea; and require the NRC to take action to improve nuclear safety in states that have no emergency plans while the states work out their programs. The NRC also would have to offer the congress within six months proposed rules governing its takeover of nuclear plants in trouble, and also would be required to set forth regulations against the sitting of new plants in urban areas.
Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), attempted to attach President Carter's propsed Energy Mobilization Board to the measure but withdrew it when Hart argued that it would be merely "action for action's sake" since Congress has not received details on the proposal from the White House.