The Nuclear Regulatory Commission came under fire from House Democrats yesterday -- and a threat to hold up its funding -- for its decision last week to close more deliberations to the public and Congress.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommitee on energy conservation and power, said at a hearing that the NRC's new approach "can more accurately be described as 'sunset regulations,' because it draws down a lead curtain around the commission's deliberations."
The commission voted, 4 to 1, last week to redefine a commission "meeting" to exclude certain NRC "gatherings" from the Sunshine Act, which requires that most meetings of federal regulatory boards be open to the public. The commission agreed to exclude staff briefings on technical problems common to several power plants, general discussions and "brainstorming sessions."
Under the law, certain kinds of meetings can be closed to the public. Last year, the commission closed 82 of its 226 meetings to the public, according to testimony. Transcripts are made of closed meetings and may be disclosed at least in part to the public.
In recent months, portions of several NRC discussions of problem-plagued nuclear plants have been made public, leading the commission to vote to further restrict access. Under the new rule, no transcripts will be made of "gatherings."
The commission also drew criticism for voting, 3 to 2, last week to forgo a public hearing on the change and to implement it immediately.
Markey said yesterday, "The decision to delay public comment on a rule change which excludes the public until after the rule is in place helps to create the unfortunate but inevitable impression that the commission majority indeed has some hidden agenda."
Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D-Ohio) said yesterday that, because of the NRC's actions, he would try to block its authorization when the subcommittee takes it up today.
But subcommittee staff members said that Eckart's fellow Democrats may be unwilling to open the authorization bill to a host of amendments because it could lead Republicans to drop their support for the bill.
After the subcommittee's hearing yesterday, the commissioners voted, 3 to 2, to reject a compromise proposal by Eckart in which he would let the authorization go through if the NRC agreed to hold a 30-day comment period before implementing the closed-meeting rule.
NRC spokesman Joe Fouchard said the commissioners "were informally polled" about the proposal and did not change the positions they had taken last week.
The four commissioners who supported the rule change said the agency was simply following the outlines of a Supreme Court opinion last year that permitted a broad exception Sunshine Act requirements. The decision, Federal Communications Commission v. ITT World Communications, said three FCC commissioners attending an international conference in Europe did not constitute a meeting under the law and that their conversations thus did not need to be made public.
NRC Chairman Nunzio J. Palladino told the subcommittee that the new rule will "foster collegiality and sound management" and will encourage "candid exchange." He said the rule "would not compromise in any way the Sunshine Act requirements" but would "contribute to the effective conduct of agency business."
Asked by Markey how Congress will know whether the commission has violated the Sunshine Act during a gathering, Palladino said, "The way you will know is by the outcome of what we have done."
Palladino, who supported the new rule but opposed implementing it immediately, said the commission did not have to provide notice of the change because it was an "interpretative ruling."
But Commissioner James K. Asselstine assailed both decisions, saying that although the new rule may be legal, it is not in the public interest.
"This commission is not sympathetic to the goals of the Sunshine Act," he told the House subcommittee. "Individual commissioners have expressed hostility toward the act and the necessity of complying with it on many occasions."
Subcommittee member Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.) said after the hearing that he is concerned that other agencies might follow the NRC's lead. "If they begin doing this, then every commission in the federal government arguably has the same rights under that Supreme Court ruling.