The ailing nuclear industry yesterday interrupted its vigil outside a New York City courtroom, long enough to ask for alms from the federal government.
Federal Judge Abraham Sofaer is pondering the validity of a Department of Transportation rule requiring trucks carrying nuclear waste to travel over interstate highways. The rule, a legacy of Jimmy Carter, supersedes local and state regulations and was to take effect Monday. Sofaer ordered a 10-day stay.
Executives of 15 utilities, who no longer exemplify the "magic of the marketplace" preached by Ronald Reagan, proposed at a meeting with Vice President Bush that Washington provide a mere $50 billion in loan guarantees for new construction. They further suggested that the federals promise to purchase electricity to resell to patrons.
Bush allegedly told them he would get back to them.
Transporting nuclear wastes on federal highways, which is of enormous moment to the nuclear establishment, has been "under review" for a year.
It has generated protests from 220 localities, countless bills in state legislatures and Congress, public hearings of unparalleled storminess and a plethora of lawsuits, of which the state of New York's is the most prominent.
Twelve senators, led by Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) and William Proxmire (D-Wis.), have written a letter demanding to know if this is the "new federalism"--Ronald Reagan's proposal for local supremacy--at work. It was addressed to Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), chairman of the President's Task Force on Federalism.
Carter, who demonstrated a certain ambivalence on nuclear issues as on others--he was a foe of proliferation but a friend of nuclear power--ordered on his last day in office that DOT should override local objections and mandate the transportation of radioactive garbage on interstate highways.
Some people think that radioactive garbage is too dangerous to be carried anywhere and that reactor owners should be required to store it at plant sites. The nuclear industry wants the federal government to to share the expense and embarrassment. If the industry cannot unload its leftovers at storage sites away from the reactors, trucking them to federal burial FALLOUT 6 grounds, it may have to close down reactors, which would be okay with a lot of people.
The Council on Economic Priorities, a New York research organization opposed to the new rule, says trucking of such waste, which would greatly increase, "raises the specter of non-military nuclear accidents in which thousands of people die within 30 days and hundreds of thousands later become victims of radiation-induced cancers and property damage is measured in billions of dollars."
A spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is in charge of the security and safety of the cargo, said, "If people were not told about it, it would be like anything else passing by. There is practically no radiation."
A DOT spokesman said, "From all we can see, it isn't a serious health hazard."
But CEP's Marvin Resnikoff says the cooled, shielded casks that carry the spent fuel are not adequate for such hazardous cargo. The nuclear industry claims the casks are "virtually indestructible," but Resnikoff claims the testing requirements are insufficient and outdated.
In the unhappy event that a truck crashed, overturned or rammed a house, few people in the area of the accident would have the slightest idea of what to do. DOT requested, but was refused, several million dollars to upgrade personnel and equipment along the routes.
Disposition of waste is only one problem bedeviling the nuclear industry. The Reagan administration initially proposed recycling the spent fuel for plutonium to make nuclear weapons. But lately, this scheme, which would at once revive the industry and contribute to the national security, has been disowned by an official of the Department of Energy.
The difficulty and danger of storing vast amounts of radioactive garbage, which remains toxic for thousands of years, has caused one country to get out of the nuclear industry entirely. The Swedish government, after an intense program of experimentation with putting the waste in an iron mine, decided it was too risky and has ordered a phaseout of nuclear plants by 2010.
The nuclear industry has learned in the year of Reagan that a friend in the White House is not enough. Its story about being choked with regulations has not stood up.
Since Three Mile Island, the NRC has been as indulgent as ever, extending deadlines for compliance with new safety regulations. The animosity of ordinary people who do not wish radioactivity added to the traffic patterns on interstate highways has made the industry so unpopular that not even $50 billion could bring the roses back to its cheeks.