Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger has urged President Carter to give an important swing seat on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to a black woman from New York whose critics call her pro-industry.
Knowledgeable sources say Goldie Watkins, a former Atomic Energy Commission official and now a nuclear safety specialist with the New York State Health Department is being recommended by Schlesinger.
Carter's nominee to the vacant seat on the five member NRC is crucial because the commission has been spilt 2 to 2 on several recent decisions pitting the nuclear industry against environmentalists and other critics.
Established by Congress in 1974, the NRC regulates the nuclear power industry, overseeing health and safety questions as diverse as waste disposal, plant licensing and exports. The NRC also regulates some federal nuclear facilities.
The NRC will also have a vital role in determining the outcome of Schlesinger's and Carter's avowed effort to increase nuclear power generation by streamlining the nuclear licensing process. Environmentalists and some anti-nuclear groups such as the Environmental Policy Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council have opposed this effort.
As word of Schlesinger's recommendation has circulated, some members of Congress have begun complaining not only about the nominee but about the selection process itself.
"I feel outraged - I understand Schlesinger has sent the recommendation to the President, but I hope that the President, doesn't appoint her," said Rep. Jonathan B. Bingham (D-N.Y.
Bingham had a major role in enacting the legislation creating the NRC, effectively segregating the old Atomic Energy Commission's regulatory and development activities.
"Schlesinger is trying to defeat what we tried to do, he is trying to put in people who are the wrong kind of people - people who will be responsive to him," Bingham said.
Last October the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works voted 7 to 4 to kill the nomination of Kent F. Hansen, another former AEC official now at MIT, to the vacant NRC seat.
Hansen was Schlesinger's personal choice for the key NRC slot and, at one point when the nomination was in trouble, Committee members calling the White House were referred to Schlesinger's staff.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo), circulated a letter to committee members last October that was critical of Hansen's sensitivity to nuclear safety questions before his nomination was voted down. Hart is chairman of the Sub-committee on Nuclear Regulation.
Yesterday Hart said, "I know nothing, about the individual [Watkins] involved, but with the Hansen matter there was a strong suggestion that the secretary was playing a very strong role, going with a pro-industry philosophy."
John Conway, an executive with Consolidated Edision in New York and former staff director of the Joint Atomic Committee on Energy, Described Watkins as "a tough regulator."
Another industry executive gave Watkins high marks saying, "It would also bring state involvement into the licensing process - this would turn around the federal bent."
Contacted yesterday for comment yesterday, Watkins said "I just can't discuss it." She declined to characterize herself as pro-nuclear or otherwise.
A senior Schlesinger aide said, "Whomever the President decides to nominate for the seat will reflect the recommendation of Joe Hendrie, the NRC chairman."
The commissioners are Victor Gilinsky and Peter Bradford who often oppose industry positions, and Richard Kennedy and Hendrie, who are thought to favor industry on some issues.