'Hearing room' created on Web Participation: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission hopes to widen citizens' role in its rule-making through its new site on the World Wide Web.


WASHINGTON -- On the Internet, people can check on airline or train schedules, shop for Christmas gifts and gather images of everything from tropical fish to nude models. And, beginning in January, they can help make safety rules for nuclear power plants.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has created what might be the first "virtual hearing room" on the World Wide Web. Baptized "RuleNet," the Web site is being promoted as an electronic forum in which the commission can gather comment and ideas nationwide from electric utilities, reactor manufacturers, safety groups, and anyone else who wants to weigh in.

At first, it would be used to help the NRC write rules, but it could later be expanded to get comment on a rule that had already been drafted by the staff.

It would be a formal part of the rule-making process, but would not replace traditional hearings.

The forum's first subject will be how to protect reactors from fire.

The NRC staff says it hopes to get a lengthy, free-ranging record it can use in writing new rules.

The NRC first listed RuleNet on Nov. 20, on its home page (http//www.nrc.gov). Web users are greeted with a cheerful cartoon image of an industrial plant, a single-family house and the U.S. Capitol, all connected by stylized telephone wires.

Those homey touches aside, the site is anything but easy to use, its critics think.

"This doesn't seem at all structured so the average person who )) doesn't have a nuclear engineering degree is going to be able to deal with the content," said Eileen Quinn, spokeswoman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group that filed a petition with the commission in 1978 to improve fire-protection rules, setting off a debate that still has not been resolved.

Mindy Landau, a commission spokeswoman, said that while the NRC had held workshops and public hearings, the Web site offered a newer form of direct community involvement and dialogue by participants.

"What we're trying to do here is get the public to participate in actually drafting the rule," Ms. Landau said.

She called RuleNet "a meeting on line." RuleNet's "vision statement" elaborates on that idea, raising the possibility that the NRC could post various positions and ask people who cruise the web to click on an icon indicating agreement or disagreement.

The NRC plans on loading more than 100 pages of documents onto the Web site; participants would be able to search these texts electronically. The comments, questions and responses to comments would all become part of the formal record.

"If they're going to present all this legal information and refer to it by rule number, and the usual NRC jargon, without creating links to glossaries and explanatory information, then they're still basically limiting participation by sheer dint of jargon," said Ms. Quinn of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Utility companies were generally more optimistic.

James A. Kelly, the manager of regulatory compliance at Southern California Edison, said RuleNet could be part of "an evolution away from lengthy workshops held in some remote locale."

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