The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is adrift. It has been drifting since the day it was created in 1974. All the while an anxious Congress has been close by, tinkering with the machinery, patching up the statutes and attempting to give direction. All to no avail. The commission is still dead in the water.

The Kemeny report traces in detail the tortuous, inconclusive efforts at piecemeal reform since the NRC was formed. It concludes that drastic organizational reform is the only way to get the commission moving. The report unanimously recommends that the present five-member commission be abolished and replaced by a semi-independent single administrator, appointed by the president with Senate confirmation.

The case for a single administrator emerges clearly from both the history of the agency and the unique functional nature of nuclear regulation.

The history of problems at NRC starts at the very top. The original NRC legislation gave each of the five commission members equal authority; the chairman was nothing more than a "first among equals." In 1975, Congress attempted to strengthen the office of chairman by designating him "principal executive officer." Unfortunately, the commissioners have never agreed on what authority a "principal executive officer" has and the commissioners continue to function as five equal members without a leader. Chairman Joseph Hendrie himself describes the chairman's function as "nominal" and concludes that "in this agency, we don't really have a chief executive officer in the sense that Cabinet departments have a head."

Below the level of the five commissioners, the agency structure becomes progressively more chaotic. To provide the management lacking at the commission level, Congress created an executive director for operations who serves at the pleasure of the five commissioners. The executives director's responsibilities are vaguely defined, but the statute eviscerates whatever authority he might have by a curious provision that gives program officers below the executive director the legal right to communicate directly with commission members. In 1978, Congress tried to restore some order by yet another statutory directive commanding the program officers to keep their executive director informed whenever the y end-run him by going directly to commission members.

Below the executive director the five program officers function more or less independently. With no management from the top, many important safety questions simply drop through the cracks. Robert Budnitz, the deputy director of the office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, has candidly observed that the program offices "tend to operate independently of each other, as independently of each other, as independ ent fiefdoms. . . ." this complete disarray has led John Ahearne, one of the newer commissioners, to conclude, "From an organizational standpoint, I think it is a mess." Ahearne favors replacing the commission with a single adminstrator.

Two events during the Three Mile Island accident provide a telling commentary on this organizational chaos. The now famous transcripts of the commission debates during the hydrogen bubble crisis show an agency totally paralyzed, reduced to a debating society, with no one responsible or accountable for organizing a response and making decisions. This chaos was dramatically underscored by the president's decision to reach down into the ranks of the agency to anoint Harold Denton as temporary leader of a headless agency.

This dismal history would, of itself justify the proposed changes. But the Kemedy report went further by analyzing the work of the agency and showing that the predominance of safety issues makes an especially strong case for the single administrator.

The classic regulatory functions are adjudication, the granting of licenses and rule-making -- the enforcement function. In many regulatory agencies the licensing function is the dominant work and is well suited to collegial decision-making: the time pressures arenot great, there is a need to hear many parties and many points of view, and there is a premium on detailed legal process to protect the economic interests competing for the license.

At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, licensing hearings are protracted technical proceedings handled by specially selected panels of lawyers and scientists called Atomic safety and Licensing Boards. The commissioners are not directly involved in licensing proceedings and, because of the lengthy and technical nature of the proceedings, it would not be practicable for them to be.

The most urgent problem at NRC is stronger day-to-day supervision of operating reactors. The NRC is the policeman on a 24-hour nationwide beat, monitoring operations, manning hot lines, inspecting pipes for cracks, responding to reactor trips and auditing operating records: in short, ensuring the continuing safety of an unforgiving technology.

This crucial policing function is what the NRC has done least effectively. The litany of day-to-day management defects dredged up by the Kemeny report is devastating. It concludes: "Inspectors frequently fail to make independent evaluations of inspections . . . . Insufficient attention has been paid to the ongoing process of assuring nuclear safety . . . . Not enough attention is paid to the training of operating personnel and operating procedures."

Good regulation means strong management. The NRC cannot be managed by committee consensus any more than a utility or a chemical company can be run that way. Nuclear safety demands prompt decisions, the setting of deadlines and vigorous follow-through. The striking success of the Navy's nuclear program is due to a single, responsible, accountable authority; one cannot imagine Hyman Rickover standing by while a committee searched for a consensus about what to do next.

Proponents of the commission form argue that it provides diversity of opinion and ensures that all sides will be heard in the continuing debate over nuclear policy. The Kemeny report recognizes the need for such diversity by calling for the creation of a presidentally appointed oversighted committee of up to 15 members versed in public health, environment protection, nuclear technology and the various scientific disciplines that relate to nuclear power. tThe oversight committee would have its own staff and mandate to range widely across both the NRC and the industry. (SECTION) ome argue that all the NRC needs is new blood, new faces and fresh, vigorous people. But new people are not enough. As the agency is now structured, Aristotle and Teddy Roosevelt Together could not move it off dead center. Congress must move quickly to take the shackles off and create an agency head who can manage and be held accountable for the results.