The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's mission is ensuring the safety of the nation's nuclear power plants and other civilian uses of nuclear energy, but many of its employees wonder about the regulatory agency's dedication to safety.

A recent survey commissioned by the NRC found that a third of its employees question the agency's commitment to safety, and almost half say that they do not feel it is "safe to speak up in the NRC."

According to the survey conducted by an outside firm, International Survey Research, many employees -- it did not specify how many -- complained that the NRC is influenced by the nuclear industry and that its regulatory powers have atrophied.

The poll was based on surveys completed last year by about half of the agency's 3,000 employees.

The most dramatic findings came when pollsters sorted the respondents by rank. Although almost 90 percent of the agency's executive-level employees answered favorably to questions regarding the commission's commitment to safety, less than two-thirds of those in the mid-level ranks answered similarly.

Paul Gunter, a director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Center, a group that opposes the nuclear industry, said those differences point to the political influence of the nuclear industry.

NRC officials deferred comment to the agency's inspector general. Stephen D. Dingbaum, an assistant inspector general, attributed the differences in opinion to the employee's tenure, saying senior managers tend to have more access to information about what is happening in the field.

Dingbaum said that although the commission has work to do, the survey also indicated that it had made dramatic progress in scores of areas -- including public safety -- since the last such survey in 1998. He also said the study found agency employees redoubling their efforts and commitment to their jobs since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.