President Reagan plans to set up a special task force to see what can be done about the financial troubles of the electric utility industry, according to a draft White House policy statement on nuclear energy.
The July 6 draft, as expected, would also reverse most nuclear policies of the Carter administration and give the nuclear power industry a major push, which could help the electric utilities. A copy of the document was obtained by The Washington Post.
White House science adviser George T. Keyworth said he expected a final, fine-tuned version of the statement to be delivered soon after Reagan returns from vacation next month. The draft outlines a five-part policy aimed at eliminating "unnecessary regulations that do not enhance safety" and at spurring nuclear power plant construction.
"To encourage a revitalization" of nuclear power, "the financial viability of our investor-owned public utilities must be restored," the statement said. "The financial position of these utilities has been badly eroded by increasing fuel costs." An independent task force would review the utilities' financial condition and recommend changes that would help them attract investors once more, the draft continued.
Construction delays and rising prices, declining electricity demand from the public and consumer resistance to higher bills are hurting most power companies nationwide. Nuclear power, the statement said, "has been effectively removed from the options available to the utilities" by unfavorable government policy.
That policy has "frustrated" development of both the breeder reactor, which produces more fuel than it uses, and technology for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel into new fuel, the statement said. The Carter administration opposed reprocessing on grounds it could encourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons worldwide, and stalled the breeder reactor for economic reasons.
Both actions are to be reversed. The statement promises to "stabilize" reprocessing policy and to complete the controversial breeder reactor in Clinch River, Tenn., as well as to do more breeder research.
The nuclear industry had hoped for strong government participation in reprocessing, but it does not appear forthcoming in this statement. "It is important that the private sector take the lead in providing commercial reprocessing services," the draft said. The government role is limited to buying enough plutonium to fuel the Clinch River plant and any future breeder program.
The statement directs Energy Secretary James B. Edwards to give "immediate priority attention" to streamlining the nuclear power plant licensing process, and to "proceed swiftly" to demonstrate high-level nuclear waste disposal techniques. That phrasing, Keyworth said, "absolutely does not rule out" the cherished industry goal of setting up medium-term waste disposal facilities in regional centers away from existing reactors.
Any move toward away-from-reactor storage is a major shift for President Reagan, who earlier opposed them in favor of expanding existing temporary rack storage at each reactor while a permanent repository is sited.
Keyworth said the "unnecessary regulations" Reagan wants to abolish might include the two-step licensing process by which a new nuclear plant is first approved for construction and then approved for operation. One permitting process prior to construction could be used instead, he said, with reactors automatically going on line once it was determined that the actual construction fit the plans.