An Alabama member of Congress, Rep. Tom Bevill (D), has quietly spiked the efforts of his colleagues to grant greater autonomy to Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigators.

For some time, horror stories have been turning up about how the NRC thwarts its investigators from probing wrongdoing at power plants.

Three committees on Capitol Hill have examined this frightening problem at the agency that is supposed to be the watchdog over the nuclear power industry, an agency that has been accused of boosting the industry it is supposed to regulate.

Some lawmakers have been trying to put more teeth into the NRC by pushing legislation that would give the agency's Office of Investigation independence. That office is charged with examining wrongdoing at nuclear power plants. In the past, it has investigated everything from lying by utility companies to drug abuse by power plant workers. The investigators have been reporting directly to the five NRC commissioners, instead of the NRC staff.

Just before Christmas, Bevill tacked onto a catchall spending bill a paragraph that could end whatever independence the Office of Investigation had been granted by NRC commissioners. Bevill chairs the Appropriations energy and water subcommittee.

His provision has put the Office of Investigation beneath the office of the executive director of the NRC, which directs the bulk of inspection and licensing activities. That means the investigators are now under the thumb of the officials that Congress has criticized for hampering investigations. The legislative language says it will improve efficiency and save money, but Bevill's spokeswoman was hard put to say how much it will save.

We asked Bevill if it had anything to do with his daughter.

Susan Bevill is an Alabama attorney involved in an inquiry begun by the Office of Investigation in 1986 at the Farley nuclear power plant near Dothan, Ala. She is not the target of the probe, but works for the firm that represents the plant owner, the Alabama Power Co. In that position, she has sat in on several heated meetings with NRC investigators.

Our associate, Stewart Harris, asked the congressman if his daughter discussed the investigation with him. Bevill responded through his spokeswoman, who said the congressman talks with all three of his children about their jobs, "but they do not lobby him on legislation."

Bevill's spokeswoman said the congressman does not remember talking with Susan Bevill about the Farley plant. Susan Bevill could not be reached for comment.

The Office of Investigation was folded into the rest of the NRC on Feb. 1. Congressional sources worry that the NRC wants to give the Office of Investigation as much integrity as Mexican federales. They say that the NRC, which began as the old Atomic Energy Commission, charged with developing nuclear power, is riddled with people who never abandoned that mission even though their new job is to protect the public health and safety.