President Carter asked Congress yesterday to put more power into the hands of the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to minimize "independent fiefdoms" of the other four members and the staff.
The reorganization plan, to be formally offered next week, would leave NRC authority over nuclear export licenses untouched. Controversy had focused in past weeks over proposals to move that authority to the State Department on the grounds that export decisions are more political than technical.
However, "The conclusion was that this was not the vehicle or the time to be modifying the export licensing procedure," a White House official said."This does not mean it cannot be proposed again."
Under the plan, which takes effect in 60 days unless vetoed by the House or Senate, the NRC chairman would become chief executive officer, with direct authority over daily operations, and greatly expanded hire-fire power over the 3,000-member staff.
In an emergency, the chairman would assume full control.
These changes are in line with the president's response in December to recommendations of his commission, headed by Dartmouth President John G. Kennedy, on the accident a year ago at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.
At the time, he rejected Kemeny's call for replacement of the five-member commission with a single administrator. Both Kemeny and another investigating group, led by Washington attorney Mitchell Rogovin, had berated the NRC for inept and glacial decisionmaking during the Three Mile Island crisis.
Rogovin had found "five equally responsible commissioners dealing individually with office directors who had independent fiefdoms," noted a White House fact sheet describing the proposed reorganization.
To remedy that problem, Carter's proposal wuld have the office directors report to the full commission through the executive director of operations, who would become virtually an extension of the chairman. The present director is more a coordinator than a director.
The chairman could also hire and fire most key officials, with commission concurrence needed only for the office directors, the general counsel, secretary and advisory board members.
"The commission can for the first time realistically look to one individual, the chairman, to be accountable for effective managment of the agency,' the White House briefing papers said.
NRC Chairman John Ahearne observed that the plan "more or less formalized what the current commission has put into effect already." He said he hoped the detailed plan would provide the NRC formal authority to delegate its powers to one commissioner. It now may delegate powers only to staff members.
He added, however, that he had recommended transfer of export licensing authority to the State Department and continued to favor that change. "I don't think the NRC is structured or has the staff for it. It tends to distract commission attention from more fundamental issues" and reactor operation, he said.
At a briefing, White House officials said the question deserved further study because of th possibility that a transfer would raise international concern over U.S. firmness in controlling the proliferation of nuclear weaponry.
In separate actions, responding to the Kemeny report, the president signed an executive order last Tuesday setting up a Nuclear Safety Oversight Committee to advise him on industry and government efforts toward improving nuclear plant operations. The five part-time members would be the only nuclear-related body reporting directly to the president. They are expected to be named soon.
Another change is $500,000 in Carter's fiscal 1981 budget to help citizens prepare for hearings on nuclear plants proposed for their communities.