THREE WEEKS AGO, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a fine of $189,000 against a Sears Roebuck and Company service facility. The fine was levied for violations of the Clean Air Act on "27 occasions when service vans and a compact station wagon . . . which required unleaded fuel were fueled with leaded gasoline instead." A week later the Occupational Health and Safety Administration slapped a fine on the Newport News Shipyard in the amount of $786,000 for violations of worker health and safety regulations. Well, then, what was the amount of the fine levied by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission against the owners of the Three Mile Island plant? The answer: $155,000.

The effectiveness of regulatory agencies should not be judged by the magnitude of the fines they impose. But the fact is that comparatively speaking, and at today's rate, the fines imposed by the NRC have been ridiculously low -- low enough, in fact, to have lost their deterrent force. Under current law the NRC may impose a maximum fine of $5,000 per violation, and no more than $25,000 per month, regardless of the number of violations. Even repeated fines at the maximum amount are hardly noticeable within the $1 billion-plus budget of a nuclear plant. The proof of this lies in the wholesale and repeated safety violations being uncovered in the aftermath of Three Mile Island.

Eight days before that historic accident, a reluctant NRC asked Congress to give it authority to fine at $100,000 per violation and to remove the monthly limit. Two of the five commissioners, including then-chairman Hendrie, voted against the request. Though the proposal passed easily (it is now awaiting action in House-Senate conference), there is reason to wonder whether the new authority will be effectively used. The NRC has in the past been reluctant to impose civil penalties on slopy, careless utilities. There is a strong feeling among some members of its staff that fines are inappropriate because the agency and the nucler industry are working together toward the same goal.

The NRC badly needs fining limits high enough to bring forth a much higher standard of care from the nuclear industry. Once Congress has done its job by providing the new authority, the NRC will have to learn to use it. Fines are by no means the only -- or even, at all times, the best -- way to ensure compliance. But they are one important instrument that has been largely ignored -- to the detriment of nuclear safety.