The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has drafted a final notice saying that it will keep more of its discussions from public and congressional scrutiny. The action immediately drew fire from Congress.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, said the NRC rules draw a "lead curtain" around NRC deliberations. If the agency proceeds, Markey said, he will use congressional oversight powers to try to undo the action.
If the commission continues in its course, Markey said, "I plan to minimize to the greatest extent possible the damage of this rule through vigorous congressional oversight that will reveal the substance of all secret gatherings."
Markey and other congressmen have already told the NRC they will require monthly notices that "gatherings" have occurred,a list of those present, what subjects were discussed, and what documents were discussed or distributed.
Technically, the NRC has already changed its rules to allow private "gatherings," but on Jan. 17 a commission meeting is scheduled to discuss the final form of the rules.
The battle over whether the NRC can hold some business meetings in private began last spring, when NRC commissioners voted 4 to 1 to redefine what a "meeting" is. The commissioners, said one NRC official, were seeking informal get-togethers for "brainstorming" about long-term plans or listening to background talks.
The federal Sunshine Act requires regulatory agencies to hold most meetings in public, or at least to keep a transcript of closed sessions. About one-third of the agency's meetings in recent years have been closed, with a transcript taken.
But following a Supreme Court case that seemed to allow broader definitions for meetings, the commissioners were told that such background, informational, and casual meetings were legal, "non-meetings" under federal law. But the NRC's own rules would have to be changed to allow them.
The commission's non-meetings would have to be called "gatherings" or "non-Sunshine Act discussions" in order to qualify as nonmeetings under the law. When the commission opted for unrecorded gatherings, it also decided not to hear public comment about whether those gatherings should be public.
Commissioner Lando W. Zech Jr. said that the old meeting rules disallowed even the most casual talks among commissioners.
"No three commissioners could be assembled without calling it a meeting. Three of us can't get together and have coffee and talk about the Washington Redskins," Zech said. "If there are two of us together and a third comes up in the hall, one has to depart. I am not used to doing business like this. It's awkward to do business like this."
The only one of five commissioners opposed to the new rule is James K. Asselstine, who said that casual meetings not about agency business are allowed, and that there are 10 categories of meetings that can be closed.
"I don't think these nonmeetings are necessary . . . I think some of my colleagues are afraid to talk in public about important issues. They have lost sight of the fact that it is the public's business," he said.
What is worse, he added, is that there is a "very great danger in the rule." The standard for what makes a meeting is so vague that it is open to abuse, and because they occur without notice, notes or transcripts, violations of the law would be very hard to spot, Asselstine said.
One NRC official said it would be nice to have a brainstorming session like one held in the past, when a previous commission went on a country retreat to talk about the future direction of the agency.
Asselstine said meetings about the agency's future would be of great public interest, and he saw no reason why such meetings could not take place in the open.