The Nuclear Regulatory Commission works a little too closely with the Department of Energy for the public to be sure it is getting top value for its research dollar, the General Accounting Official confirmation of a common complaint by nuclear power opponents. The Department of Energy, according to the GAO, gets 86 percent of the commission's outside spending, or $141.6 million last year. That is half the agency's overall $288 million budget.

"DOE has the task of promoting and developing nuclear power. NRC has the job of regulating it," Hart said. "This report raises disturbing questions about how independent the regulatory is from the promotional agency."

The NRC gave all that work to its former coworkers in the Department of Energy largely because of "traditionally close working relationships" with them, and could not justify it on any grounds the GAO would accept, the report said.

"Assignments of such projects are made by the various NRC program offices without first considering whether other performers might be qualified to do the work," it said.

For example, the NRC said it placed contracts in the DOE laboratories because they had unique research facilities, offered more assurance of freedom from conflict of interest and could receive the projects with a minimum of paperwork and time loss.

The GAO rejected these explanations. Many facilities have comparable staff and capacity, it said; conflict of interest could conceivably be less outside than inside the government, and most contract work is planned along with the budget a year in advance, which would eliminate any time saving.

A spokesman for the NRC said the agency could not comment until it has had time to review the full report.

The NRC also let about 70 percent of its $14 million in other outside contracts without competitive bidding last year, the GAO said, and was unable to justify doing so in a large number of cases. The contracts were badly monitored and were allowed to drag on long after they should have been closed out, the study continued.

In addition, the NRC routinely hired consultants without being able to justify or even fully describe the work they were to do, the report said."This is the fourth report on the shortcomings of NRC's contracting practices," said Hart, who chairs one of the subcommittees that oversee the NRC. "This time I want to see a plan to correct the situation."

The GAO recommended a general tightening of financial controls at the NRC, calling for justifications for the placement of each contract and expansion of competitive bidding.