Restructure the NRC

THE Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been taking some hard hits lately. These include charges that the agency is too cozy with nuclear utilities; that high-level staff officials have suggested that inspectors tone down criticisms of plants under construction; and recent allegations that strong pressure from an NRC official caused the Federal Emergency Management Agency to drop its opposition to current evacuation plans for the Seabrook, N.H., nuclear plant.

The commission has temporarily closed nuclear plants it finds unsafe or mismanaged and has levied fines for violations of its regulations. But many people still see the NRC as focusing more on the industry's image and on getting plants up and running than on whether plants are built and operated safely.

That's why legislation in Congress to restructure the panel is welcome. It could help tip the balance back to oversight of nuclear safety. The proposed measure, called the Nuclear Regulatory Reorganization and Reform Act, would rename the NRC the Nuclear Safety Agency.

We know, we know: A rose by any other name. ... The title change would be clear notice that Congress intends that the agency focus on safety. But there also needs to be truth-in-advertising. Hence the restructuring, which would include:

Replacing the five-member committee with a single administrator, on whose desk ``the buck'' would stop. The current commission system is a holdover from the old Atomic Energy Commission. It made sense when one agency controlled both civilian and military nuclear programs. But that changed in 1974. Congress abolished the AEC, handed a newly formed NRC the job of regulator, and gave the duties for promoting nuclear energy and overseeing the military program to what is now the Department of Energy. The commission's role changed faster than attitudes among its members; their old job as promoters of nuclear energy still seemed at times to override safety issues. With one person making the decisions, lawmakers know whom to go to with complaints or praise.

Establishing an independent Office of Nuclear Reactor Safety Investigation. Modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, this office would look into major mishaps at power plants, report its findings, and make recommendations. The Nuclear Safety Agency administrator would have 60 days to respond to the president and Congress on what has been done to adopt recommendations or explain why they haven't been adopted.

Setting up a strengthened inspector general outside the agency to investigate charges of wrongdoing within the agency.

Strengthening the commission office that looks into utility wrongdoing.

It would be easy to dismiss these proposals as just shuffling deck chairs. It's true that any organization is only as effective as the people heading it and staffing it. But these proposals hold enough promise of increasing accountability and objectivity in nuclear energy regulation to deserve support.

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