Faced with an uncontrollable rebellion by the delegates to the Democratic Party's platform committee, the Carter administration yesterday accepted a strongly worded -- if symbolic -- antinuclear power plank for the 1980 party platform.
The plank represents a significant departure from the generally pronuclear policies pursued by the Carter administration, and actually parallels the nuclear policy that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) enunciated in this year's primary elections.
It calls for suspending the issuance of permits to new nuclear plants until strict new safety standards are met, and puts the Democrats on record in favor of retiring all existing nuclear plants "as alternative fuels become available in the future."
Though the tenor of the plank is strongly antinuclear, White House officials hastened to point out that it would permit not only the continued operation of nuclear plants but also the construction of 90 or more new ones during the 1980s.
Nevertheless, the Carter forces were clearly chagrined at the outcome of the debate over nuclear energy, and they acknowledged that it represented an accomplishment both for the Kennedy delegates and the Campaign for Safe Energy, and increasingly effective citizens' lobbying group.
Critics of nuclear energy succeeded in shaking the Carter camp's control of the platform-writing process after proponents of old-fashioned Democratic programs -- like help for unemployed workers -- had failed.
They victory appeared to symbolize the growing strength of the antinuclear movement, one of only a few political causes that has attracted broad public support in recent years.
"These folks are organized," observed Peter Edelman, Kennedy's chief issues adviser, after yesterday's victory for the antinuclear forces.
"The unemployed people in this country don't have anyone to come and speak for them."
The platform plank adopted yesterday is unlikely to have any immediate practical effect. As if to emphasize that point, President Carter approved a communique yesterday at the economic summit meeting in Venice that said, "The role of nuclear energy has to be increased if world energy needs are to be met."
Nevertheless, officials of the Campaign for Safe Energy claimed a victory, and promised to build on it in the future.
And there was no question that the Carter administration saw that it had been forced into a compromise. "It was the best language we could get," said Stuart E. Eizenstat, Carter's chief aide on domestic policy. "A much more unacceptable version would have been accepted" by the platform committee if the compromise hadn't been offered, Eizenstat added later.
Apparently the delegates were about to endorse a nuclear plank approved by their own energy task force on Sunday that called for a moratorium on all new plants and "an orderly phase-out" of all existing plants "as alternatives are phased in."
This plank had been offered by a Carter delegate, Carrie Wasley of Minnesota, and won the backing of six Carter delegates in the energy task force. Sunday night and all day yesterday, Eizenstat and other Carter administration and campaign officials sought to pressure Wasley and her allies to compromise, even calling a special caucus of all Carter delegates to the platform committee to press for an acceptable middle ground.
But the Carter camp offered nothing that would satisfy Wasley and the Campaign for Safe Energy, so late yesterday afternoon she brought up before the full committee the plank that had been approved in the energy task force. While debate continued on the floor, intense negotiations continued in the corridors and back rooms of the Mayflower Hotel where the committee is meeting. Then, dramatically, Wasley interrupted the debate to ask for a five-minute recess because "we are close to a compromise on this issue."
Her announcement set off cheers in the hall and the first genuine excitement of these platform committee meetings, which have been going on in one forum or another for 10 days. Wasley then disappeared from the floor again to clinch her deal with Martin Franks, an official of the Carter campaign. She returned triumphantly to the hall and read the compromise to more cheers and applause.
The new version of the plank was qui ckly adopted, and Carter and Kennedy delegates then outdid each other in enthusiastic praise for their mutual accomplishment.It was the only instance since the platform committee first convened when the Carter camp has found a way genuinely to accommodate its intraparty critics. The results encouraged Carter loyalists about the prospect for restoring party unity even as administration officials looked for loopholes in the plank itself.
This is the text of the nuclear plank approved yesterday:
"We must make conservation and renewable energy our nation's energy priorities for the future. Through the federal government's commitment to renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, and as alternative fuels become available in the future, we will retire nuclear power plants in an orderly manner.
"We must give the highest priority to dealing with the nuclear waste disposal problem. Current efforts to develop a safe, environmentally sound nuclear waste disposal plan must be continued and intensified.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission shall issue no licenses or permits for new nuclear plants until the Kemeny Commission recommendations [new safety standards that grew out of the investigation into the Three Mile Island accident] are fully implemented. Existing plants must be required to meet the safety recommendations of the Kemeny Commission. The Democratic Party supports prompt implementation of their recommendations. No plant unable to meet these standards can be allowed to operate."
The draft platform written under the firm guidance of the Carter campaign had said nuclear plants "provide vital energy to many areas of our country," and, "For the foreseeable future, we will continue to need to reply on nuclear energy . . ."
On all other issues brought before the full platform committee yesterday, Carter delegates beat back challenges to the draft platform with vote ratios of approximately 2 to 1.
The platform committee rejected an amendment calling for an end to the administration's grain embargo against the Soviet Union.
Instead, the panel adopted a statement urging that "except in time of war or grave threats to national security, the federal government impose no further embargoes on agricultural products."