The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has strayed so far from its mission that a White House plan to put a fox in the henhouse is not even ruffling feathers on Capitol Hill.

The NRC mandate is to regulate the nuclear power industry. Common sense would dictate that one would not recruit regulators from within that industry any more than the Moral Majority would hire Madonna to keep an eye on Prince.

But that is exactly what President Bush is planning. By all accounts, Bush's next nominee to the NRC will be Phillip Bayne, president of the New York Power Authority. Those who watch the workings of the NRC have already abandoned any hope that it will be an adequate watchdog over the industry. But if Bayne is appointed, this would be the first time that the White House has blatantly called an NRC commissioner right out of the enemy camp.

In that respect, the nomination of Bayne may mark the nadir of the NRC, an agency that already "doesn't have a skeptical bone in its body," as one source close to the commission told us.

Critics have charged for years that the five-member commission is little more than an arm of the nuclear power industry. Bayne's appointment could tilt policy even further toward the industry. But what is more troubling is that those in government who used to protest the tilt now seem resigned to this latest compromise.

So far, there has not been a whisper of opposition from Congress, which is weary of bloodshed over presidential nominees. No one is willing to go to the mat to salvage an agency that has long since sold out.

"These people are all picked by the industry," one congressional source told our associate Dan Njegomir. Another source said that a nominee would have to be an "ax murderer" to lose in the Senate. "People just don't want a tough {NRC}," said another congressional source.

Neither the NRC staff nor the White House will confirm that Bayne will be nominated. Bayne told us he would like the job but said he has not lobbied for it, does not know who is pushing him and has no guarantee of getting the appointment.

He and others in the industry dismiss the talk of potential conflict of interest and insist that an industry veteran would bring the NRC some perspective. "I think it's very important to have someone knowledgeable {about the industry} doing some of the regulating," Bayne told us.

Perhaps Bayne has not noticed that the NRC already has enough of an industry "perspective" to make its regulatory efforts a joke.

The perspective that Bayne would bring may be foreshadowed by his past criticism of federal safety inspections at nuclear plants. Bayne told us he would not bend the rules for the industry and said he welcomes the "extra eyes" of federal inspectors. Bayne said he would abstain from NRC matters involving his tenure at the New York Power Authority. And a spokesman for Bayne told us he was "an absolute straight shooter."

We have no doubt that Bayne is an honorable guy. But other straight shooters have come and gone without ruffling feathers in the industry they are supposed to regulate, simply because their background did not teach them the needed skepticism about nuclear power.