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Lawmakers Rap NRC’s Bid to Close More Meetings

May 22, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Nuclear Regulatory Comission’s decision to conduct many of its discussions of atomic power safety behind closed doors drew sharp rebukes Tuesday from several members of Congress.

Two House members, Reps. Dennis Eckart, D-Ohio, and Gerry Sikorski, D- Minn., even threatened to tie up the agency’s reauthorization by Congress with an amendment to delay the change for a year.

″Something just doesn’t smell right here,″ Eckart told the five-member commission during a hearing before the House Energy power and conservation subcommittee.

On a 3-2 vote last Thursday, the commission voted to immediately change its definition of a ″meeting″ to exclude briefings on technical problems common to several power plants, general discussions and ″brainstorming sessions.″

Eckart, Sikorski and Reps. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the chairman of the subcommittee, and Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., did not dispute the commission’s contention that it has the authority under the 1975 Government in the Sunshine Act to close more of its meetings.

The law, passed in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, was aimed at opening more of the goverment’s day-to-day business to public view.

″I think you left the spirit of the law tattered,″ Eckart said. ″I read it (the spirit) as, ‘When in doubt, open up.’ And you read it as, ’When in doubt, shut up.‴

But NRC Chairman Nunzio Palladino said the commission’s historical strict interpretation of the law has had a ″chilling effect″ on the panel’s members when they want to test ideas.

″It sometimes gets to be like the Johnny Carson show,″ said Commissioner Fred Bernthal, the primary architect of the change.

He charged that conducting most of the agency’s business in public led to grandstanding for the media, restrained free-flow discussions and forced the members to rely on notational votes behind closed doors.

James Asselstine, the only commissioner to oppose the change outright, said he fears that it ″will throw a cloak over much of what this agency does.″

″This commission is not sympathetic to the goals of the Sunshine Act,″ Asselstine said, citing figures showing that in 1983 it used exemptions under the law to close one-third of its 226 meetings. ″It has demonstrated an arrogance and a disdain for the public that is becoming all too common these days.″

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