THE NUCLEAR REGULATORY Commission is snake-bit. Now even a relatively simple solution to one of this beleaguered agency's worst problem is being sidetracked by election-year politics.
The problem is that the NRC's 2,000 or so employees work out of no fewer than nine buildings in widely separated locations. The NRC commissioners have been complaining about this for years, nothing that even a well-organized agency would have trouble making sound decision when several man-hours of driving time are required in order to hold a small meeting. But it wasn't until Three Mile Island focused attention on how the NRC functioned -- or more accurately, didn't function -- that anyone really paid attention.
It is, in fact, a wonder that the NRC ever decided anything at all. The office of Safety and Safeguards is in Silver Spring.The office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, with which is works very closely, is miles away in Bethesda. Both offices must work constantly with the office of Inspection and Enforcement in a different part of Bethesda. All offices overlap with the office of Standards Development in Rockville. The commissioners themselves, with their small immediate staff, are miles away from all of the technical staff, in downtown Washington.
Ultimately, Congress wants the NRC to be entirely in one building, and a likely site has been selected in Silver Spring. But it will cost $100 million and take at least five years to build. Neither the money nor the time is available. Meanwhile, the administration has proposed a good interim solution that would put half of the NRC into the downtown building where the commissioners are now, and the other half into four buildings close together in Bethesda.
Few issues bring the blood up in this town as predictably as office space. In this case, those who will be inconvenienced by the move are making their voices heard through the NRC employes union and Montgomery County Executive Gilchrist. Rep. Barnes and Sen. Sarbanes, apparently worried that the interim move will prejudice the final relocation in Silver Spring, are also in opposition. And now it is rumored that the White House, with election-year concerns in mind, may be stepping in to support the naysayers.
Who works where may not be what you'd call a gripping political issue. But anyone who has ever worked in government can testify that nine buildings in four towns would practically preclude reasonable decision-making. Compared with the national interest in safe nuclear power, the objections that have been made to the interim relocation plan are minor. Congress and the administration should push ahead with the plan -- and quickly.