The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is supposed to keep a tight leash on the nuclear power industry to prevent safety lapses and corner-cutting that could lead to a Chernobyl-style disaster. Instead, the agency's industry-friendly commissioners have been keeping a tight leash on their investigative bloodhounds.

In the process, the five commissioners have said one thing in public and another thing in private. They promised Sens. John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) at a recent hearing that they would never do anything to block or interfere with the work of the NRC's Office of Investigations. The office and its 34 investigators are independent, they assured the senators.

Behind closed doors, however, it was a different story. Our associate Stewart Harris obtained a transcript of the commissioners' meeting July 29. There, they suggested that agency investigators should be "team players," not independent diggers.

Ben Hayes, head of the Office of Investigations, had requested the executive session in hopes of clarifying the situation, in which his investigators feel they are being hampered by the commissioners and the NRC administrative staff.

Hayes told the commissioners that his power to initiate investigations was meaningless as long as the commissioners retain the power to cut off the investigations at any time.

And that is precisely the power the commissioners intend to hold onto, as Commissioner Lando W. Zech Jr. made perfectly clear. "Certainly, you have something to do with helping us determine whether we should proceed," he told Hayes, "but to say that you {have} the primary standing, really, I don't think is correct."

Victor Stello Jr., NRC staff director, asserted that the commissioners are the final arbiters when the agency staff opposes a probe by the Office of Investigations. "If ever there is a contest -- and I don't expect that it ought to be very often at all -- have a short paper come up to the commission and you decide it," he said to his bosses.

"That sounds fine to me," said Zech. "I don't see anything wrong with that."

Hayes and his deputy director, Roger Fortuna, saw plenty wrong with it. Hayes explained that without the power to continue an investigation, he lives in constant danger of having the rug pulled out from under him by the commissioners.

Commissioner Kenneth M. Carr, a firm opponent of an independent investigative office, was plainly offended by Hayes' request.

"It boils down to if Ben wants to be a team player, we'd like to know where you play on the team, Ben," Carr said. "Are you going to be an individual, or are you going to be the coach?"

The struggle over investigative independence has been going on for several years. During that time, the commissioners tried to put their own candidates on the investigative staff, prompting suspicions that they were planting spies in the office. The commissioners also set up a review board to screen tips before they were given to the Office of Investigations. When Hayes tried to circumvent the board, commissioner Thomas M. Roberts threatened to fire him. The board was dissolved after six stormy months.