Congress to Quiz NRC on Whether It Lacks Regulatory Zeal
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Despite new steps ″to put our house in order,″ the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is catching heat from Congress over allegations that agency officials have played too cozy with the nuclear industry.
Stung by testimony earlier this month at a Senate hearing, NRC Chairman Lando Zech late Monday ordered several actions ″to assure the thoroughness and integrity″ of investigations of commercial reactors. Included were attempts to remove some of the bureaucratic layers between field investigations and prosecutions.
But Zech and other NRC officials faced a new round of questions today, in an appearance before the House Energy Committee, about the extent of their regulatory zeal.
Committee member Edward Markey, D-Mass., has raised the question of the agency’s recent tilt toward a relaxation of emergency planning rules in an effort to expedite the licensing of the controversial Seabrook plant in New Hampshire.
In his announcement Monday, Zech cited several other cases that had been aired April 9 before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, including the disclosure that a confidential NRC memorandum on allegations about a Louisiana nuclear plant apparently had been leaked from the files of Commissioner Thomas Roberts to the owners of the utility.
″While we are prejudging no person and no component of this agency, we want to make clear that we will take whatever corrective action may be required to put our house in order,″ Zech said.
Roberts had acknowledged to the Senate committee that he originally squelched evidence that a copy of the memo, bearing his initials, had been found by an NRC investigator in the offices of the Louisiana Power & Light Co., owners of the Waterford nuclear plant near New Orleans.
Roberts said he didn’t leak the document, but ordered the copy, coupled with the investigator’s notes, destroyed because he thought someone was trying to ″set me up.″
Zech said Monday that Roberts now has asked the NRC’s Office of Inspector and Auditor ″to initiate, and complete as soon as possible, an investigation to determine how an NRC memorandum that appears to have come from his office’s files″ was obtained by the utility.
The Senate panel, headed by Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, also heard complaints from NRC investigators of harassment and intimidation by commission superiors regarding probes of the Comanche Peak nuclear plant in Texas and the various difficulties facing nuclear operations of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Zech said he had ordered Administrative Judge Gary Edles to review those two investigations.
″This agency relies on thorough investigations to accomplish its regulatory activities,″ he said. ″Any weakness in its investigatory processes, internal or external, is unacceptable.″
Zech, a former admiral in the nuclear Navy, announced two steps designed to immediately bolster the independence of investigators. The commission will lift the requirement that its own general counsel review any investigation before it is referred to the Justice Department for prosecution, he said.
In addition, the commissioners themselves will no longer require prior consultation before allegations of ″material false statements″ - deliberate lies - by plant operators are referred to prosecutors.
Moreover, said Zech, the commission will review its procedures for handling future allegations involving commissioners and their offices and will consider other measures designed to cut through bureaucratic impediments to the Office of Investigations.
Glenn has introduced legislation to create an independent inspector general’s office in the NRC, a step Zech has resisted. Glenn was not immediately available for comment on the steps Zech announced Monday, but a key committee aide, asking not to be identified, said he viewed them as ″two years too late.″