The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has "continuing and sometimes chronic problems" with its procedures for licensing people to handle radioactive materials, the investigative arm of Congress said in a recent report.

The General Accounting Office report said the NRC usually does not verify license application information, visit the nuclear facility before granting a license or have specific criteria for determining when to reject a license application.It said that as a result, "NRC is overly vulnerable to dishonest or careless applicants."

"All of these weaknesses or problems increase the public's risk of exposure," said Wednesday's report.

Rep. Edward Feighan, D-Ohio, had asked for the GAO investigation after a 1986 accidental spill of radioactive material that had been smuggled onto Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

Feighan issued a statement calling on the NRC to "take immediate action to correct deficiencies identified in the report."

"We have every right to expect quick response from an agency that oversees hazardous materials licensing. Unfortunately, there is little in the GAO report to suggest that the NRC has corrected critical problems identified over the last 16 years," Feighan said.

NRC spokesman John Kopack said the agency would not discuss the report until after its staff had reviewed it.

The report said the NRC has limited resources: 25 full-time license reviewers and 36 inspectors, versus 7,700 licenses for industrial and other uses of radioactive materials.

In addition to granting licenses without verifying applicants' claims or visiting facilities, the report said the NRC:

-Doesn't have checklists to determine when a license application should be denied or when repeat violators should get extra penalties.

-Doesn't make sure licence-holders can afford to clean up after an accident.

-Takes too long to renew licenses and make inspections because of large backlogs.

In the case that led to the GAO inquiry, the NRC gave a radioactive materials-handling license to a 10th-grade dropout without checking his training and experience.

The agency learned J.C. Haynes of Newark, Ohio, had provided false information on his application only after it issued the license, which enabled Haynes to use radioactive material to color diamonds.

"Despite this finding Haynes was not only allowed to keep the license but it was amended to permit him to use larger quantities of americium in any form," the report said.

Americium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors, turns diamonds green and makes lesser-quality stones more saleable. Its radiation is 1,000 times more potent than a typical hospital diagnostic procedure.