After a year of peering under its rugs and finding too many examples of lax enforcement, the nation's nuclear-energy watchdog is beginning to wield a broom.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has unveiled organizational changes designed to improve its ability to quickly spot safety problems and enforce its rules at the nation's 110 commercial nuclear reactors.
The shakeup, though subtle, represents some of the most significant changes at the agency since the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. While many observers believe they still don't go far enough, even some critics say the moves could signal the beginning of a tougher stance by the NRC at a time of dramatic change in the industry - and growing concern about safety.
"I see this as positive," says David Lochbaum, a former nuclear consultant who now follows atomic-energy issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group. "They recognize there's a problem."
As part of its move, the commission reorganized the way the body operates and who handles the work. Three senior staff members will retire, bringing to four the number of top managers who have left in the past few months and who, critics say, either bent regulations or were too slow to deal with safety problems in an effort to prop up an ailing industry.
In announcing the changes Dec. 2, NRC Chairwoman Shirley Ann Jackson said that as more electric utilities cut costs to attract customers, and as the agency's own budget shrinks, "it is imperative that we are able to diagnose declining licensee performance as early as possible" and act quickly on the diagnosis.
Accumulated safety violations and sluggish NRC responses have led to the shutdown of six of the Northeast's 29 licensed reactors. A seventh is operating at 90 percent of capacity while safety reviews are under way.
The off-line reactors, four of which belong to Connecticut's Northeast Utilities, may not restart without the commission's approval. At least one of the four reactors, Haddam Neck plant, has been defueled and is not expected to ever restart.
In other parts of the country, plants have remained on the NRC's 'watch list' for years, raising questions even among the commissioners about how vigorously the staff is forcing utilities to confront their problems.
Agency changes will involve the appointment of a chief financial officer - a job that previously fell to the executive director of operations, who oversees the agency's day-to-day work. And departments that had been criticized for an apparent lack of coordination and consistency have been reshaped.
The new, clearer structure allows the commission to "demand more accountability from senior managers," says one NRC official.
Although he views the changes as positive, Mr. Lochbaum notes that if the motive is to provide earlier warning of problems at plants, more must be done to increase the power of regional and on-site inspectors. The "trend has been to give more power to the working-level folks," he says. Yet some inspectors contend that too much of what they bring back from inspections gets watered down, over time discouraging them and their colleagues from digging too deep.
Moreover, the agency's formal plant-evaluation process has been streamlined - some inside and outside the agency say "gutted" - over the past several years, undercutting its usefulness as a barometer of plant performance. Restoring some categories, such as quality assurance, to their former high profile could help, they say.
The moves represent the first major reforms brought under the stewardship of Dr. Jackson, a nuclear physicist who took over the troubled agency last year. She has said she wants to return the NRC to its primary mission - protecting the public. Many are now watching to see how these changes will be carried out.