PRESIDENT Clinton -- who came into office vowing to ''ensure safety'' at the nation's nuclear-power plants -- suddenly has a rare opportunity to put his stamp on the industry.
The surprise news that Ivan Selin, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, would step down July 1 leaves the NRC rudderless. His departure could leave four of the NRC's five commission seats vacant.
Mr. Clinton's next moves will be closely watched -- both by the industry and by watchdogs who charge that the NRC under Mr. Selin has put nuclear profits ahead of nuclear safety.
To industry insiders, the NRC under Selin has improved its approach to regulating the nuclear industry.
''He enhanced the agency's credibility on Capitol Hill and opened the regulatory process to the public, holding press conferences in various regions and getting the regional administrators to hold more meetings at plant sites,'' says Joe Colvin, executive vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the industry in Washington, D.C.
Working with Congress, Selin also helped usher in one-step plant licensing. A change long sought by the industry, one-step licensing allows a utility that selects an NRC-approved reactor design to bypass one of two permit steps, reducing the time it takes to bring a new reactor on line. In addition, Mr. Colvin says, under Selin's tenure, the industry significantly improved its safety record.
Yet to some nuclear-safety advocates, the NRC has only succeeded in sidestepping its responsibilities to ensure safe reactor operations.
''The way they handle issues has been very disappointing,'' says Stephen Comley, head of We the People, Inc. of the United States, a nuclear-safety group based in Rowley, Mass., near New Hampshire's Seabrook Nuclear Power Station. ''They are taking chances with the safety of my family.''
Among other examples, Mr. Comley cites a January report to the NRC by Connecticut-based Northeast Nuclear Energy Company.
The utility found that huge motor-operated valves critical to emergency cooling systems at its Millstone 2 nuclear plant could lock shut during the type of accident the valves were designed to handle. Two weeks ago, the company found similar problems in valves at its Connecticut Yankee plant. These valves are common to virtually all reactors.
The NRC's response to this information is a case study in the criticism currently being leveled at the agency.
Earlier this month, the NRC issued an ''information notice'' to utilities, referring to Northeast's findings. The notice acknowledged that the problem could leave the cooling systems that are designed to prevent reactor cores from overheating during a loss-of-coolant accident ''incapable of performing their safety functions.''
But the notice required no response or action by a utility. A Northeast spokesman says Millstone 2, which is shut down for refueling, will not restart until the problem is fixed.
The issue of large motor-operated valves, however, has been on the table since 1989. ''The NRC has really underplayed this one,'' says Robert Pollard, a nuclear-safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, of this month's notice.
Moreover, Comley says, the NRC has been all too open with its information about whistle-blowers. The NRC's inspector general has found that the agency has failed to follow through on its pledge to protect the identity of industry whistle-blowers who come to it with allegations of safety violations. This has cost several their jobs. Furthermore, the NRC is now proposing that all safety complaints by employees first be filed with their utility.
''You need to support individuals who find problems,'' Comley concludes. ''Selin hasn't done that.''
Paul Blanch, a former Northeast Utilities instrumentation engineer and a whistle-blower himself, adds that the NRC applies techniques and solutions to safety questions that the agency does not allow utilities to use.
Moreover, he says, the NRC's various forms of notification of safety issues are confusing to many operators and that often the agency focuses more on trivial rules than ones that truly affect safety.
IRONICALLY, this is one area on which the industry and NRC critics agree, if for different reasons. In a recent survey commissioned by the industry, 83 percent of the respondents to a survey said that ''pressure from the NRC to take action on issues of little or no safety value has unnecessarily contributed to significant plant-operating costs.''
As for one-step licensing, Mr. Pollard, a former NRC staff member, notes that by reducing the number of permits, one-step licensing also removes one opportunity for public comment. Indeed, Selin originally voiced reservations about one-step licensing, which troubled the Bush administration.
In a September 1991 memo to then-Energy Secretary Adm. James Watkins, Assistant Secretary of Nuclear Energy William Young outlined several strategies the administration could apply in an effort to bring Selin into line. The options ranged from encouraging Selin to sign a joint statement with Secretary Watkins favoring one-step licensing to having then-White House chief of staff and Selin-mentor John Sununu ''tell chairman Selin to say nothing further to the Congress than support'' for the new licensing approach.
These and other examples leave Comley, Blanch, Pollard, and others convinced that the NRC sees its main role as keeping the nuclear industry in business at the expense of safety.
''When I get onto an airplane or into a car, I know and accept the risk. With nuclear power, I don't know the risk and I'm not taking that risk voluntarily,'' Blanch says. ''Motor-operated valve problems don't scare me; they will be fixed. It's the compounding problems that the NRC is not facing that raise the risks.''