Washington — The agency that regulates the United States' nuclear power industry is in trouble. Critics have long mumbled that officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are too cozy with the companies they are supposed to regulate. But now, for the first time, such allegations against top-level commission officials are causing serious repercussions.
Four separate investigations are under way into the activities of Commissioner Thomas M. Roberts and the commission's executive director for operations, Victor Stello Jr., including a Justice Department probe of Mr. Roberts's relationship with a Louisiana utility. Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio and five House Democrats have demanded that Roberts resign. (Details, Page 7.)
The controversy grows out of accusations that commission officials gave favored treatment to some utilities - such as tipping them off to the substance of pending investigations and coaching them on what to say to gain operating licenses.
Defenders of the five-member commission contend that such accusations are nothing new and will eventually be proved groundless.
``Nuclear power is extraordinarily controversial in this country; essentially the US public doesn't like it,'' former NRC chairman John Ahearne says. ``So the agency charged with regulating it will be under constant scrutiny.''
Still, the current spate of investigations is considered the strongest attack on the agency since the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.
In the wake of that event, serious questions were raised about the ability of the commission to ensure safety at American plants. Commissioner James Asselstine, a frequent critic of NRC policies and decisions, says there has been a steady erosion in the commission's effectiveness in recent years.
The key problem, he says, is that it is concentrating too much on traditional concerns about construction quality. It needs to shift its attention to the longer-term issue of operational safety. Greater attention must be given to such things as maintenance and training, says Mr. Asselstine, whose term as commissioner expires next month.
Industry sets tone
At the same time, he adds, the NRC has allowed the nuclear industry to set the tone for safety requirements, often allowing companies to establish voluntary safety codes rather than having the NRC lay down rules.
The commission has also made it more difficult to justify new regulations. After Three Mile Island, it established the so-called ``backfit rule,'' which set out specific criteria to judge the merits of a new safety measure. Under this rule, new regulations are evaluated on a cost-benefit basis, which Asselstine says has made it much more difficult to justify new rules.
``Since this rule was imposed in 1985, the NRC has not imposed a single significant safety improvement or requirement on the industry,'' Asselstine says.
Such trends have made the controversy over Commissioner Roberts and Mr. Stello especially heated. In one case, a 1983 commission memorandum about flaws in a nuclear plant at Waterford, La., made it into the hands of the company that owns the facility within days after it was written.
The leak gave the company time to prepare to deal with the complaints before they were made public. The incident remained hidden until 1985, when an NRC inspector found the document tucked in a file at the company's headquarters. Clipped to the memo was a note from a utility official saying that the item would need to be kept confidential, ``to protect the source within the NRC.''
Although there are indications that the document went through Roberts's office, the commissioner denies involvement in the leak. When questioned by members of the Senate's subcommittee on nuclear regulation earlier this month, however, he refused to answer, saying he needed time to consult with his lawyer. Roberts is on a leave of absence and is expected to testify before Congress next week.
Stello accused of `coaching'
The other focus of inquiry involves conversations between Stello and managers of several troubled nuclear power plants. Stello is accused of ``coaching'' officials at the Seabrook nuclear plant, in New Hampshire, on how to deal with Massachusetts' refusal to develop an emergency evacuation plan for regions near the plant.
Stello is also said to have helped the director of the nuclear power program at the Tennessee Valley Authority. Stello denies any wrongdoing.
Along with the ongoing investigations, measures have been introduced in both houses of Congress that would create a Nuclear Safety Board as well as an office of inspector general for the commission.
The inspector general would operate independently of the commission and is widely seen as a key improvement in the NRC structure. The commission already has two internal offices that conduct investigations, but critics say they often fail to root out problems.
An investigation at the Comanche Peak nuclear plant in Texas, for instance, disclosed that some workers at the plant were being harassed and intimidated by regional NRC managers for identifying safety problems. The NRC investigator sent in to do the study says his report was manipulated by officials in Washington, who edited it heavily and attempted to limit the scope of his inquiry.
Congress gets involved
A more radical NRC modification being considered on Capitol Hill is the creation of a single administrator to replace the commission's five-member leadership. A single administrator, advocates say, could be held more accountable for wrongdoing.
``These problems have been around for a long time,'' a well-informed Senate staff member says. ``The investigations may show that these are isolated incidents, in which case there is no need for fundamental changes in the NRC's structure.''
If, however, the problems are found to be more substantial, there is likely to be much more pressure in Congress to legislate sweeping changes.