The nuclear industry, which toasted the election of Ronald Reagan as a green light for atomic power, is unhappy with the administration's sluggish pace so far and not at all sure that things are moving in its direction.
The industry expected the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to become its friend under Reagan, but the agency remains instead a pain in the neck to it. David A. Stockman's Office of Management and Budget has refused to buy a mothballed waste reprocessing plant and given only halfhearted support ot the industry's cherished Clinch River breeder reactor.
Reagan himself delviered a body blow to the nuclear export industry by deriding its international monitoring system, and his long-promised speech boosting nuclear power has yet to materialize. The policy he plans for nuclear waste disposal is not what the industry had hoped it would be.
"It's not our enemies we have to worry about. God save us from our friends," sighed Dgeorge Gleason of the American Nuclear Energy Council, the industry lobbying organization.
The new chairman of the NRC is Nunzio Joseph Palladino, 64, head of the department of nuclear engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He was not on the list of people the industry wanted for the job.
A soft-spoken academic who served 10 years on the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS), which counsels the NRC on technical matters, Palladino is "maybe too nice for that snakepit. He's technically superb, but the NRC needs a really tough administrator," said one utility chief.
Translation: the industry is not sure Palladino will be the reliable defender it had hoped to get from Ronald Reagan.
"I guess I was considered a bit of a thorn in the side of the utilities," Palladino said in a recent interview. As an ACRS member from 1964 to 1974, Palladino recalled, he pushed utilities to install additional outside power supplies to make sure emergency pumps would be available even in a general blackout.
Dr. Walter Kerr, professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan and an ACRS member, recalls that Palladino had a deceptively bland style of interrogation.
"You'd think he was asking the silliest questions and before you knew it he'd have the guy tied in knots," Kerr said. "He's a nice guy, but he's pretty shrewd."
Another high NRC official admiringly called Palladino "a tough SOB. We'd vote him down five times in as meeting and he'd still be there pounding the table."
Those who worry about Palladino's quiet demeanor as he enters the NRC snakepit should worry about something else, Palladino said. "I'm very decision-oriented and I'll work very hard to get the decision I think we ought to have. I'm not overly nice. Running a college of engineering has many of the same problems [and] a lot of opportunity for infighting."
The industry is also uneasy with Reagan's nominee for a second vacancy on the NRC. Thomas Roberts, 44, is a genial dynamo whose main qualification for the job appears to be his background as former treasurer of Vice President Bush's presidential campaign. He was not on the industry list either, but Bush proposed him for the chairmanship.
Roberts noted in an interview that making steel liners for reactor containment buildings was 85 percent of the business of the Southern Boiler and Tank works that he ran in Memphis from 1969 to 1978, and that he has a degree in industrial engineering. "I'm not persuaded that you have to have any specific educational or work experience to be able to make sound judgments," Roberts said.
But his ignorance of nuclear matters was profound enough to alarm Senate Republicans who vetoed Bush's desire to name him NRC chairman, according to congressional and NRC sources. And even Douglas O. Lee, chairman of the strongly pro-nuclear lobby, Americans for Nuclear Energy, is considering opposing Roberts' nomination.
"There are candidates out there with better credentials and we need the best possible," Lee said. He and others also worried that the deliberate, tediously technical debating society style of NRC meetings might not mesh with Roberts' go-getter personality. "He'd be a basket case in six months," said one lobbyist.
Even worse from the industry viewpoint is that the controversy over Roberts' nomination means the current 2-2 philosophical split on the NRC will probably continue into September.
Commissioners Peter A. Bradford and Victor Gilinsky have frequently opposed what the industry regards as the more favorable views of Commissioner John F. Ahearne and departing Chairman Joseph M. Hendrie. The industry has blamed this split for stalling the licensing of completed nuclear plants, slowing the construction of others and for giving antinuclear activists too much of a hearing.
"The industry does a disservice to its clients in trying to convince the world that nuclear power's problems stem from the 2-2 splits," responded Bradford. "If they could name all five commissioners, get Clinch River, rewrite the licensing process, turn on reprocessing and get the NRCout of export licensing -- get everything they want -- there would still be no more [new reactor] orders over the next few years than there would have been anyway."
Instead, Bradford said, it is lack of confidence in the financial markets, stagnant electricity demand and soaring construction costs that have stalled nuclear power. Others echo that view, and note that Reaganites haven't yet helped much with any of the problems.
When Energy Secretary James B. Edwards proposed that the government acquire the Allied General Services Co.'s never-used plant in Barnwell, S.C., for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, the industry was delighted, hoping finally to get in on the lucrative international reprocessed fuel market. But Reagan told Edwards to forget the idea. It's $362 million the government can't afford just now, he was told.
Similarly, Stockman's budget included $254 million for the controversial 10-year-old breeder reactor pilot project in Clinch River, Tenn., which the industry hopes finally to complete under Reagan.
But Stockman had won fame as a congressman for attacking the plant. His born-again defense of it was less than convincing to the House Science and Technology Committee, which killed it last month on economic grounds. The reactor was restored with $230 million in the final budget that passed the House on Friday, however, and appears likely to survive.
After Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear power plant, Reagan shocked some in the nuclear industry by casually pooh-poohing a major article of faith behind the export of nuclear power units: that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors can be relied on to keep nuclear exports from being cnverted to bombs.
"How many countries do we know that have signed [the nonproliferation treaty] that very possibly are going ahead with weapons?" Reagan said. "It's again something that doesn't lend itself to verification." He then added that although he supports nuclear exports, it means that "you have at least opened the door where someone can proceed to the development of weapons."
The whole bombing incident, Gleason said, "swung the pendulum back to those in Congress who would like to tighten up even further" on exports.
And finally, Reagan drafted a month ago a statement on nuclear energy that industry spokesmen called "a good general endorsement" of their views. But it has yet to be delivered. "We generally wish we were further along on a defined nuclear policy, but with the focus entirely on the budget I don't think we've been singled out for neglect," said Carl Goldstein of the Atomic Industrial Forum, an industry trade association.
A statement on nuclear waste policy is also pending and it isn't just what the industry wanted, either. While it favors reprocessing spent fuel and speedy action toward a final waste repository site, it rules out construction of centralized facilities for long-term waste storage, which has long been an industry goal. "There are elements of it that the industry wishes were otherwise," Goldstein said, "but Congress will have something to say about it."
Despite the lack of movement in their direction, industry voices are hopeful. "We were looking for a more positive approach to nuclear power" with Reagan's election "and I still think there is that philosophical commitment," Gleason said. "After trhe budget hassle is over I think there'll be some action."