The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has moved to excuse itself from the federal Sunshine Act, which was designed to keep most meetings of most agencies open to the public. It requires that even where meetings are closed a transcript be kept. The theory of the act is that if public officials don't want people to know about it, they probably shouldn't be doing it.
The sometimes hassled NRC's way around this law has been to create a new kind of non-meeting meeting called a "gathering." A gathering can be closed and does not require a transcript. The commissioners changed their regulations to permit this maneuver about a month ago. They did even that a little surreptitiously. Most regulations take effect after a comment period; this one took effect immediately. Public comment didn't count.
The agency says it made the change for the reason usually given -- so that members could speak freely on sensitive subjects, in a way they might not feel free to do in public. It's a familiar and understandable impulse, but it was a poor decision.
The commissioners were forgetting their own history. The NRC was carved out of the old Atomic Energy Commission roughly a decade ago to act as the impartial regulator and overseer of the nuclear power industry. The AEC's other functions, which had made it in many ways an advocate for the industry, were separately lodged. The idea was to reassure all comers that, on the issue of nuclear safety, the public interest would be fairly served.
No issue stirs more passion and, for some people, fear than the siting and safety of nuclear power plants. That has been especially true since Three Mile Island. At the same time very few issues are more technical. That combination may be part of what drove the commissioners to punch their hole in the Sunshine Act. But that is precisely what makes it so imperative that the NRC's business be done in full view.
Several congressmen, led by Rep. Edward J. Markey, chairman of the House subcommittee on energy conservation and power, have introduced a bill to repeal the new NRC regulations. The commissioners should save them the trouble and do it themselves.