Two recent Federal Registers provide a reminder that we still have a long way to go in understanding the dangers of radiation, and in the rules needed to protect the public. They also illustrate how long it can take to change a policy.

On Dec. 27, 1977, a group called Citizens United for Responsible Energy (CURE) petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require nuclear reactor operators to report immediately to state and NRC officials any abnormal incidents at their plants. The NRC and a designated state agency within 200 miles were to be told within a half hour, under the CURE proposal.

The NRC staff began looking into the matter in early 1978, but the process didn't take on any steam until the Three Mile Island accident. Thereafter, the NRC demanded that operators take some immediate steps, such as installing dedicated telephone lines from all plants to the NRC operations center in Washington, according to the Oct. 28 Federal Register (page 53189).

In addition, the NRC has now published new regulations that require a reactor licensee to notify the NRC "as soon as possible, and in all cases within an hour" if an emergency plan must be initiated or "an accidental, unplanned, or uncontrolled radioactive release" occurs.

Having taken these steps, the NRC voted Oct. 16 to close the almost four-year-old docket opened by the 1977 CURE petition, saying that the CURE proposals have been "granted in substance" because the NRC's new regulations "follow the basic intent of the petition."

An interesting footnote is that of 32 comments received by the agency on the 1977 petition, 25 opposed its recommendations.

The CURE case, at least, shows action. The Oct. 29 Federal Register (pages 53594-53622) illustrates how other matters can get dragged out. It contains a listing of NRC's regulatory agenda, and among the 103 outstanding items are several worth noting.

One example is a rule proposed in February, 1979, to lower the approved radiation dose for workers and for minors, "because of the desire of the commission to reduce the risks of occupational radiation doses in commission-licensed activities . . . ." The rule would, in the words of the notice, "benefit workers by increasing radiation protection for them."

The comment period closed in April, 1979, with 47 of the 83 comments supporting a higher exposure standard rather than the lower level proposed by the NRC.

Because of the comments, more study was undertaken, and, in the interim, new health data appeared, along with conflicting interpretations of its meaning. Now the NRC is involved in a new joint government study, begun in the Carter administration with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

What's next? There's a new target date--June, 1982--for offering yet another rule. If the normal course is followed, no final rule can be looked for much before late 1983 or 1984.