A fight has broken out between Congress and the Carter administration over an administrative move to strip the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its licensing authority over nuclear exports.
The plan to give licensing authority for overseas uranium shipments to the State Department has run into such a buzzsaw in the House and Senate that the White House Office of Management and Budget is having second thoughts about including it in its plan to reorganize the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The plan is due on President Carter's desk in less than a week.
"Even if the plan has organizational merit," said a White House source, "this may not be the time to reorganize nuclear exports." w
The plan to move the nuclear export authority was floated late last month to key congressional committees with the full backing of the State and Energy departments. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave it lukewarm support, with three commissioners approving and two in adamant opposition.
The State and Energy departments were pushing the move because they feared the United States was acquiring an image of not being a "reliable supplier" of enriched uranium to countries needing it for nuclear power. They did not feel that buyers of U.S. uranium should have to go through the long licensing delays imposed by NRC hearings on their export applications.
"I don't think it's a good idea," NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky said yesterday. "Leaving the licensing of nuclear exports with the NRC provides an independent check and maintains a degree of consistency for something that on occasion might be subject to political exigiencies."
Congressional opposition surfaced almost as soon as the plan was proposed. Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), co-sponsor of the original legislation giving the authority to the NRC, spoke out in open opposition at a leadership breakfast meeting last week at the White House. He was seconded by Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), chairman of the nuclear regulation subcommittee.
Since then, Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has written the White House opposing the move. Similar letters have been written by six other congressmen, including Rep. Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House subcommittee on international economic policy.
Late yesterday, a letter in opposition to the move to go to the White House and to OMB Director James T. McIntyre Jr. was being drafted by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee on energy, nuclear proliferation and federal services. An aide said the letter would be shown today to Sens. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.) and Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) to see if they wanted to sign it.
All three are members of Glenn's subcommittee and helped write the original legislation.
According to key congressional aides, the move to strip the NRC of its export licensing powers was lobbied on Capitol Hill by Gerard C. Smith, ambassador-at-large for weapons non-proliferation matters. If anything, the aides said, Smith's lobbying hurt the move instead of helping it.
"Everybody found it peculiar," an aide said, "that the president's chief negotiator on proliferation matters chose to spend his time lobbying for something that Congress doesn't think can help proliferation matters at all."
If nuclear export licensing were to move from the NRC to the State Department, Congress would have a lot less to say about an individual uranium export. As things now stand, Congress can block a license granted by the NCR under certain circumstances. If State had the licensing authority, Congress would have to pass a joint resolution to disallow a license.
In explaining part of the opposition to the move, a key congressional aide said that if the authority went to the State Department, uranium export licenses would come easier for countries like India, Pakistan, South Africa, Taiwan, Argentina and Brazil -- all on the fringe of becoming nuclear weapons states or expanding a power that already exists.
"Taking exports away from the NRC," the source said, "is a signal we're easing off on uranium licensing just at a time when we should be getting tougher."