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Crisis May Aid Anti-Nuclear Effort in U.S.

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Times Staff Writer

The Soviet nuclear plant disaster is likely to strengthen U.S. anti-nuclear groups’ challenges to emergency and evacuation plans for communities near nuclear power plants, a development that could delay the completion of new plants and force the abandonment of the nation’s costliest unit--the Shoreham nuclear power station in New York state.

Nevertheless, utility officials throughout the United States maintained Wednesday that the Chernobyl disaster has little relevance to the safety or future of the $125-billion American nuclear power industry.

“We don’t believe there’s any relationship between Chernobyl and the American nuclear program,” said Irene Johnson, an engineer and spokeswoman for Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison, the nation’s largest producer of nuclear power. “We’re doing nothing above and beyond our normal operation.”

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But activists argued that the accident demonstrates that even a “worst-case” scenario can, in fact, become reality.

A Lengthy Battle

“This is the event the industry has told us for years was only theoretical,” said Joel Reynolds, staff attorney for the Los Angeles Center for Law in the Public Interest, which for years has waged a court battle over emergency planning at Diablo Canyon, the nuclear plant operated near San Luis Obispo by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Reynolds said his group is planning an appeal to the Supreme Court of a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling Friday in Washington that regulators are not bound to consider the complicating effects of an earthquake on crisis planning around Diablo Canyon. A spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric said the utility has no intention of reconsidering its plan in light of the Chernobyl accident.

“There’s no point in changing perfection, and we do have a near-perfect emergency plan,” the spokesman, George Sarkisian, said.

Several New Units

Eighteen new nuclear plants are expected to be completed and licensed in the United States between now and 1990, according to a survey by the Atomic Industrial Forum, a nuclear trade group. Seven more are under construction and scheduled for completion in the following decade.

Finance professionals familiar with the industry said utilities owning plants that have not been completed are the most vulnerable to changes in public sentiment about nuclear power, particularly if the Chernobyl disaster leads to a costly reassessment of U.S. safety or emergency regulations.

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Such companies were prominent losers on the stock market Wednesday as utility stocks plunged for the second day in a row.

Six utilities with plants under construction were among the 15 most active stocks on the New York Stock Exchange, and the shares of all of them fell in price. They were Commonwealth Edison, Long Island Lighting Co., Southern Corp., Central & South West Co., Ohio Edison and Middle South Utilities.

Seen as Overreaction

Most recovered somewhat from their lows of the day, however, as investors reasoned that the trading represented an overreaction to the impact of the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl plant.

The Soviet accident is likely to intensify the debate over one of those plants--the Shoreham nuclear power station, about 70 miles east of New York City on heavily populated Long Island.

The $4.5-billion plant, the nation’s most expensive in terms of dollars per kilowatt, was completed in 1984 and finished low-power testing earlier this year. But it has never been put into operation because state and local officials have refused to participate in emergency planning on the grounds that evacuating the residents of the congested region is impossible. Many local politicians have suggested that the plant should be abandoned because of its high operating costs and inappropriate location.

“We think this strengthens our stand that emergency planning shouldn’t be passed off as an exercise,” said Nora Bredes, executive coordinator of the Shoreham Opponents Coalition.

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Declined to Speculate

A spokesman for Long Island Lighting Co., Shoreham’s 100% owner, declined to speculate on the impact of the disaster on the company’s plans to operate the plant as early as this fall.

“There’s still not a lot of good information on what went on over there” in Chernobyl, said the spokesman, William Sherrard. “This is not the time for us to be assessing those kinds of consequences.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is scheduled to rule shortly on whether the Long Island company’s emergency planning is adequate, the state and local positions notwithstanding.

Congress Vote Delayed

Meanwhile, one of the first tangible repercussions of the Soviet accident struck the utility industry in the halls of Congress. There, supporters of a bill to increase the industry’s liability from a nuclear accident used the Chernobyl incident to stall voting on an industry compromise.

At issue was a change in the Price-Anderson Act, which for years has limited the industry’s liability for injuries from any single accident to $650 million.

The House Interior Committee narrowly voted last week to increase the ceiling to $8.2 billion, but industry lobbyists apparently persuaded committee Republicans to support a compromise figure of $2 billion.

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Although the compromisers appear to have sufficient votes to win a showdown, supporters of the higher figure convinced them that a vote on the issue would be inappropriate while reports of a historic disaster are still trickling in from the Soviet Union. The vote was deferred for two weeks.

‘In a Different World’

“This industry is so insensitive it doesn’t realize it’s living in a different world than a week ago,” said Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), a supporter of the higher liability limit. “The timing could not have been worse.”

The reports from the Soviet Union also reawakened opponents of the controversial Seabrook Station in New Hampshire, where about 40 members of the Clamshell Alliance demonstrated outside the gates of the nearly completed plant Wednesday morning.

Many argue that speculation over Chernobyl’s impact on the U.S. industry is academic, as the industry is close to moribund in any event.

“This may give the anti-nuclear people some strength, but the industry has been in a holding pattern for several years now,” said Paul Whelan, an electrical industry analyst for the investment firm of Pershing & Co.

No new reactor has been ordered by a U.S. utility since 1978, when Commonwealth Edison ordered two for its twin Carroll County units. Those plants remain on the drawing board for completion sometime after the turn of the century, Commonwealth’s Johnson said Wednesday.

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