The nuclear power industry has been so busy defending itself against attack from the political left that it has ignored a growing number of critics beginning to move in from the right.
Conservatives such as Sens. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) and Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) of tax-cutting fame found themselves voting recently with liberals like Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) and Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Mass.) in congressional attempts to curb nuclear power.
At least one of Ronald Reagan's campaign committee chiefs, Rep. Jon Hinson (R-Miss.), has called for a five-year moratorium on new nuclear power plants.
The dean of conservative mailing lists, Richard Viguerie, said recently that his people are "through carrying water for the nuclear industry." The National Taxpayers Union thinks nuclear power costs too much. And Rep. Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.), president of the American Conservative Union, has reservations about any plant for his district.
"If it's so safe," he said, "why don't they want to put it in Baltimore City?"
In the wake of Three Mile Island, in which a damaged reactor puffed radiation over parts of Pennsylvania, conservative voices are being heard in the national reassessment of nuclear energy. Few want the whole industry shut down. In fact, most of the right-field worriers still believe in a major role for nuclear power in the nation's energy future. But they are skeptical now as never before about the claims of the nuclear industry in every field: safety, economics, need and political impact. They worry a lot about the problem of nuclear waste disposal.
It was that issue that brought Laxalt and McGovern together last month in cosponsoring a proposal to give states veto power over waste disposal sites in their districts. Goldwater joined up, as did several senators who saw it as a state's rights issue. The measure lost, 55 to 37, but nuclear opponents thought the margin would have been much larger before the Three Mile Island incident.
Hinson has a former nuclear test site, the Tatem Salt Dome, in his Mississippi district, but he said he knew nothing about nuclear power before he began researching it last year for a March speech. Five days before the Three Mile Island accident, he described nuclear energy as "an unforgiving technology" and called for a five-year halt to new plant operation and construction.
"I am not anti-nuclear," he said, "I am pro-caution."
In an interview, Hinson complained he found as much misinformation and emotionalism in defenses of the industry as he did in attacks on it.
"The agencies, the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have simply failed to level with people about the environmental burdens this technology calls upon them to bear," he said. "It's a dirty business that needs to be cleaned up. And it can be cleaned up."
Republican presidential hopeful Reagan is staunchly pro-nuclear, but Hinson has not considered withdrawing from Reagan's campaign committee. "He said, and I agree, that reasonable men can differ," Hinson related.
The freshman Republican toyed with the idea of starting an anti-nuclear conservative caucus on Capitol Hill but decided there are too many special interest caucuses already. "This isn't a liberal-conservative issue.... Unless responsible politicians speak out on it, this valuable political territory will be left to the radicals, the crazies and the bomb-throwers," he said.
Self-described radicals on the issue include the Students for a Libertarian Society and the rest of the far-right Libertarian Party movement, who argue that nuclear power means big government money and controls and therefore ought to be abolished.
The West Coast's Libertarian Party, which wants to shut the entire industry and which claims 10,000 paying supporters nationwide, came East recently in endorsing the giant May 6 anti-nuclear rally in Washington. The Libertarians also supported repeal of the Price-Anderson Act, the law that regulates nuclear industry insurance, on grounds its provisions for federal guarantees amount to a subsidy for nuclear power.
Many conservatives, who shun the Libertarians as being too close to anarchists for comfort, go along with reducing the federal involvement in reactor construction.
"The industry should be developed privately," said rep. Kemp, who tried last year with Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) to slash income taxes by 30 percent in three years.
"I realized that if I were to be consistent, I had to look at some areas the government has gotten into, particularly the nuclear power effort," Kemp siad. "Getting the feds out won't kill it.... Any economical source of energy will continue to be developed."
Viguerie, who raises money for the so-called New Right with mailing list expertise from his Virginia office, said his wing is losing interest in nuclear power as it loses faith in corporate virtue.
"They're in bed with big business, which the New Right has identified as part of the problem and not part of the solution," he said. "Let Big Business get out there and sell nuclear power to he American people if they want to. We don't need any additional baggage to help lose elections."
He said most conservatives would agree nuclear power is one of the energy sources of the future, provided it is strongly regulated, "but it's just something we don't want to get involved in just now."
Bauman, head of the ACU, said he has talked for five years about the need to guarantee nuclear power safety. "You've got to have better systems guilt in, but you can't simply ban the entire thing," he said. "While our faith may have been tested [by Three Mile Island], we're not about to drop it completely."
Traditional anti-nuclear workers on the left view the new conservative support with delight. "It means more storms for nuclear in Congress, especially when this emotional drive towards more energy production spends itself," said Peter Franchot of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts group critical of the industry.
The industry itself is unconcerned. "This isn't very new on the far right. If the Libertarians were supporting us, it's then we'd be concerned," said George Gleason of the American Nuclear Energy Council, the industry lobbying arm. Most of the nuclear power's backing now comes from more educated, middle-class, middle-aged males, he said.
"I'd rather have support from the common man than from any of these groups on either extreme," he said. CAPTION: Picture 1, SEN. PAUL LAXALT; Picture 2, SEN. BARRY GOLDWATER joined liberals in unsuccessful try to give states veto over waste dumping.