Energy Secretary Bill Richardson named a high-level search committee yesterday to recommend candidates to head the department's new nuclear weapons agency.

Richardson said he hopes to have the new chief in place by March, when the agency, created by Congress during the uproar over alleged Chinese espionage, must begin operation.

The search committee will be chaired by Charles Curtis, former deputy energy secretary, and includes retired Adm. James Watkins, who was energy secretary in the Bush administration.

Congress created the National Nuclear Security Administration despite strong objections from Richardson, who said it gave too much independence to the agency.

Republicans in Congress said a new agency was needed to ensure that security and counterespionage programs are improved at the DOE's weapons labs.

But President Clinton, in signing the law that created the agency, triggered an uproar among some Republican lawmakers when he said that because of shortcomings in the law, Richardson would head the agency. Congressional critics accused Clinton of trying to sidestep the law.

Richardson said yesterday he formed the search panel after receiving an assurance from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) that the senator would support legislation next year that ensures that the energy secretary will have clear authority over the new agency.

Domenici said he would pursue the change sought by Richardson. He called the naming of the search committee "a very positive step" toward resolving disagreements over the nuclear agency.