Washington — Has the Nuclear Regulatory Commission been taking a Charles Atlas body-building course? The normally mild-mannered NRC has lately increased the number and severity of fines slapped on careless nuclear power plant owners. One plant - Indian Point, near New York City - is even being threatened with closure because it doesn't yet have an adequate emergency evacuation plan.
NRC officials say they're getting tougher. But the agency's critics grumble the NRC is a 97-pound weakling who's more talk than muscle.
The commission's latest move occurred Monday, when its staff proposed fining the Virginia Electric & Power Company $40,000 for lax inspections at a nuclear plant near Surry, Va. Over the first three months of this year, an NRC official says, the nuclear agency proposed 20 such fines - a threefold increase from the same period of 1982.
''We've been trying to get to cases a lot quicker,'' says Jane Axelrad, acting director of enforcement at the NRC.
Two weeks ago the commission hit the owners of a nuclear power plant in Salem , N.J., with the largest fine ever levied for safety deficiencies - $850,000.
Among other mistakes, New Jersey's Public Service Electric & Gas Company had failed to oil a crucial part for seven years, thus causing Salem's automatic shutdown system to fail.
''Most NRC fines are a slap on the wrist,'' admits a Democratic congressional staff member who is generally critical of the agency. ''This one was a slap on the face.''
And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is threatening to shut down Indian Point, a venerable reactor 35 miles north of Manhattan, because the counties surrounding the plant have yet to produce a plan for evacuating residents in case of emergency.
The Indian Point area has tried for two years to come up with a workable plan. One county - Rockland - has refused to participate, saying evacuation of the densely populated area is impossible. Westchester County bus drivers, who would help transport area residents in an emergency, have also balked.
The NRC says that unless there is significant progress toward breaking the evacuation plan deadlock, Indian Point will have to be turned off on June 9.
''We're hopeful an accord can be reached,'' says Jim Holton, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which advises the NRC on whether an evacuation plan is up to par. Mr. Holton says New York State might be persuaded to step in for the recalcitrant Rockland County.
But NRC's critics say the commission has been anything but tough over the Indian Point issue.
The NRC has twice before set deadlines for Indian Point to produce an emergency plan. Both dates passed without punishment. Critics say the commission is in part being forced to act by the FEMA.
''I don't regard as serious the (NRC) threat to close the plant down,'' says Steven Sholley, a researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watch group.
This fits in with the agency's overall pattern of behavior, critics claim. The NRC now produces a lot of aggressive rhetoric, they say, but seldom acts unless pushed.
''There has been real improvement,'' says a Democratic congressional committee staff member, ''but there are still very deep problems.''
Former NRC officials hired by utilities have allegedly been allowed to edit NRC reports. And critics grumble that the agency has been slow to investigate items on its list of technical problems common to many reactors.
For example, as reactor vessels age, they become brittle and more susceptible to damage.
Annealing or other treatment may solve this potentially dangerous problem of ''pressurized thermal shock,'' yet the NRC has been slow to investigate these possible solutions, claims John Clewett of the Ralph Nader-affiliated group Critical Mass.
He says the commission is sensitive to the nuclear industry's concern of being stuck with an expensive bill for solving problems such as thermal shock.
''The NRC is really an extension of the nuclear industry,'' he says. ''If the nuclear industry expires, the agency's expertise won't be needed anywhere else.''