The utility companies that finance nuclear power plants have found a friend in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This is the federal agency that is supposed to keep an eye on the nation's 100-plus nuclear plants.

An investigation by Rep. Samuel Gejdenson (D-Conn.) concludes that the NRC has all but stopped its conscientious inspectors from ordering safety improvements at the plants. The reason? The improvements may cost more than the bosses at the NRC think they are worth.

In industry jargon, changing a nuclear plant to make it safer is called "backfitting." The NRC's record on backfits has been less than aggressive.

In August, a federal court tried to end one NRC policy on backfitting. That policy required the regulators to prove a backfit was needed, and that the increase in safety was worth the price. If you are deciding whether to remodel your kitchen, the cost/benefit analysis makes sense. If you are deciding whether to make a nuclear power plant safer, cost/benefit calculations may get in the way of preventing a disaster.

In a stinging opinion, the federal court told the NRC that the cost/benefit approach to safety improvements was wrong.

Apparently, the NRC's cheerleaders for nuclear power were not cowed by the court. They came up with a proposed clarification of the old rule, which sounds suspiciously like business as usual.

Here's how NRC Chairman Lando W. Zech Jr. explained it to Gejdenson's Interior subcommittee on general oversight and investigations: "The court specifically rejected the proposition that the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 forbids the NRC from ever considering economic costs in the backfitting process." Translation: They left us a loophole.

The federal court, in fact, allowed the NRC to consider the price tag if the modification does more than make the plant "adequately" safe.

Given the NRC's track record on regulating the nuclear power industry, Zech and his chums on the commission are capable of stretching this loophole into a six-lane expressway. Source inside the NRC and congressional experts told our associate Stewart Harris that they fear the NRC will merely lower its standard for what constitutes adequate protection of public health and safety. That way, the NRC can use its cost/benefit analysis to reject a safety improvement simply by saying the backfit is not needed to make the plant "adequately" safe.

Gejdenson's report says the NRC's new backfit policy has been written around the loophole and "lends itself to abuse and convenient interpretations."

Zech hinted at this strategy in testimony before Gejdenson's subcommittee. He said the NRC believes in making the plants safer, "but that the process will be carefully managed to assure that the backfit is either required for safety or that the safety benefits are commensurate with the resources investment."

That is small comfort to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the nuclear safety group that brought the backfit issue to federal court.

Gejdenson's report is appropriately called "NRC Coziness with Industry." An NRC spokeswoman declined our request for comment on the report until the NRC sends its formal response to Gejdenson.