A new approach to the controversial reorganization of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission came out of the White House yesterday, got qualified approval from previously hostile commissioners and was sent speedily on its way toward congressional passage.
The House legislation and national security subcommittee endorsed the plan after Harrison Wellford, executive associate director of the office of Management and Budget, told the panel that new amendments "underscore the collegial role of the commission."
In fact, said NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky before the session, the changes represent "a dramatic retreat" by the White House in what he said were its earlier efforts to strangle any collegial role whatever.
President Carter promised to reorganize the NRC as part of his response to investigations of the accident a year ago at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.
The Kemeny commission, named for its chairman, John G. Kemeny, said glacial decision-making processes and unworkable internal arrangements had made the NRC ineffective in handling the crisis. It recommended that the commission structure be abolished and replaced with a single administrative head.
Asked by subcommittee chairman Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) why the reorganization plan retains the five-member commission, Wellford said the disruption of such a change would have been "a trauma" impeding the NRC'S oeprations. He did not add another reason, which was that such a proposal almost certainly would never have passed Congress.
The White House then proposed a reorganization plan that retained the five-member commission but gave most of its current powers to the chairman. So much power went to the chairman, in fact, that a majority of the commission members decided it was their abolition in disguise.
They enlisted the support of friendly congressmen and editorial writers to pressure the White House into relenting, and yesterday's amendments were the result.
The full Government Operations Committee may take up the reorganization plan today.
As amended, the plan puts the NRC chairman in full charge of day-to-day management of the commission, a task now shared by the five commissioners. It requires the chairman to delegate most of this work to his executive director but explicitly gives the chairman the lead in planning.
This plan is designed, in large part, to free the members from the administrative details that have distracted them from deliberating and resolving policy and adjudicatory issues -- the task for which the commission was create," Wellford said.
The amendments added four key positions to the list of those requiring full commission approval: the executive director and the chiefs of inspection, standards development and research. The original plan allowed the chairman to appoint or remove them without commission approval.
The amendments also would allow joint commission selection and firing of advisory commission members. They also would require the chairman and the executive director to keep the rest of the commissioners "fully and currently informed . . . through the chairman." Commissioners Gilinsky and Peter A. Bradford asked that this section be claified further but expressed general satisfaction with the changes.
They previously had worried that a newly all-powerful chairman would be able to muzzle them by controlling the flow of information. Under this version, Wellford said, "the commission has full access to all information it requires and. . .the chairman cannot block the flow of information."
Brooks observed that in regulating nuclear power, the commission "has a large bear by the tail. This reorganization should give you a better handle on the bear."