The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday proposed stiffening its safety standards for the operation of nuclear power plants so that "no individual bears a significant additional risk to life and health" in the event of a nuclear accident.

In response to an order of the presidential commission established after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the NRC proposed new safety goals for the nation's nuclear power plants that would make the risk of instant death or lethal cancer from nuclear accidents one for every 1,000 deaths and lethal cancers from all other accidental causes.

"This is the first time we've ever tried to define how safe is safe," said Dr. Forrest Remick, head of the NRC's office of policy evaluation.

"We want to make it clear that no death attributable to a nuclear power plant accident will ever be 'acceptable' in the sense that the Commission would regard it as a routine or permissible event," the NRC said in a 27-page document released yesterday for public comment. "We are discussing acceptable risks, not acceptable deaths."

In proposing that the risks of fatal nuclear accident be kept so low they are 1/1,000 that of all other accidents, the NRC said these risks "are low enough to support an expectation that people living or working near nuclear power plants would have no special concern due to the plant's proximity."

The NRC suggested using two guidelines to reach its safety goals. It proposed adoption of a guideline that says a safety change should be made if it costs less than $1,000 to avoid one man-rem of radiation exposure, the equivalent of 30 chest x-rays for everybody exposed. It also proposed adoption of a guideline that would make the likelihood of a core meltdown after an accident "less than one in 10,000" each year that a plant is in operation.

A uranium core at a U.S. nuclear power plant has never melted down because it could no longer be cooled with water. But if one did melt down, it might release large amounts of radiation into the air and water near the plant. A core meltdown is the worst accident that can possibly happen at a nuclear power plant.

"I want to emphasize that this is only a guideline, that no safety change has been proposed," Remick said. "If we were making changes using this guideline, they would be along the lines of increasing the wall thickness of the concrete containment around a reactor, things like that."

Two of the NRC's five commissioners criticized the new safety goals on the grounds they aren't stiff enough. Commissioner Peter Bradford said even if the new guidelines are used, they accept the possibility that the United States would suffer 13,000 accidental deaths if there were massive accidents at all 150 U.S. nuclear plants over the next 30 to 40 years. Commissioner Victor Gilinsky agreed with Bradford.

"The commission's refusal to state it (the possibility of 13,000 deaths) is a sad mistake," Bradford said. "It undermines forthright discussion of the goal and recalls the past regulatory overprotectiveness of nuclear power that has helped bring the technology into disrepute."

NRC Chairman Nunzio Palladino called Bradford's remarks "misleading." Said Palladino: "The estimate of 13,000 fatalities from nuclear power accidents should be viewed in relation to the 13 million fatalities in the same relevant population over the same time period as a result of accidents and cancer not stemming from nuclear power accidents."