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Internal NRC feud becomes public spectacle

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

A long-simmering internal feud at the top levels of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission erupted into full public view and spilled into the halls of Congress in December. On the surface, the dispute appeared to be about personality issues; but at its core the stakes are high: the argument is really over the fundamental role of the Commission -whether it should be a facilitator for the nuclear industry or a serious regulator.

Because the nuclear industry and its supporters fear an NRC committed to regulating the industry, they launched an unprecedented effort to topple the NRC’s chairman and grab control of the agency. So far, their campaign, which includes all the elements of a melodramatic soap opera or reality TV show, has failed.

The public drama began in early December, when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee, released a letter written in October to President Obama from four of the five NRC Commissioners (William Magwood, Kristine Svinicki, George Apostalakis and William Ostendorff). The letter accused NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko of harassment and intimidation, especially of women staffers of the NRC, and of withholding information from the other Commissioners and changing NRC staff recommendations, and all but pleaded with the President to fire Jaczko.

The presumption appears to be that Obama would then appoint Magwood, who has emerged as the leader of the group, to be the new Chairman. Magwood, a Democrat, was the only one of the current batch of Commissioners whose appointment received substantial opposition from the environmental community. More than 100 national and regional groups signed a letter urging the Senate to reject his nomination. Before becoming a Commissioner, Magwood had promoted nuclear power at the Department of Energy and had once been a consultant to Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco).

Issa’s committee then held a lengthy livestreamed hearing at which the four Commissioners repeated their charges in public, although they refused to identify a single person who claims Jaczko had harassed or intimidated her or him. For his part, Jaczko denied ever harassing anyone and apologized if he had ever offended anyone in the heat of an argument.

Nonetheless, several Republican Congressmembers urged Jaczko to resign, which he chose not to do. Jaczko received solid support from several Democratic Members, including ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). And Markey released a major investigative report on December 9, dismissing the charges against Jaczko and arguing that the four complaining Commissioners were engaged in a conspiracy to delay or prevent adoption of the agency’s Fukushima Task Force recommendations, which issued a serious of proposed regulatory changes -all strengthening regulations- during the summer.

Later the same week, Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate’s Environment Committee, held her own hearing on the NRC’s response to the Fukushima disaster at which the tables were somewhat turned on the four Commissioners. Boxer complained the Commission was not moving fast enough to implement the recommendations and she gave a strong endorsement to Jaczko. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also strongly endorsed Jaczko -no surprise given that Jaczko was a key staff member for Reid in opposition to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. Jaczko also had worked for Rep. Markey before joining Reid’s staff.

By the new year, it appeared that Jaczko had weathered the storm and would not be asked to resign by the President, although he was also hit by the resignation of his chief of staff. Replacing him is Angela Coggins, a longtime Jaczko staffer who also had a short stint working in Rep. Markey’s office, who has good connections with the environmental community.

The fundamental issue though, has not been resolved. Jaczko is a Commissioner much in the mold of a handful of earlier NRC Commissioners -Peter Bradford, Victor Gilinsky, James Asselstine- who support the concept of nuclear power but also believe it requires strong oversight and regulation (although Asselstine, at least, has taken a much more pro-industry stance since leaving the Commission). Jaczko’s first major task was to implement the Obama Administration’s policy of ending the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada radioactive waste dump- a policy vigorously opposed by the nuclear industry and many in Congress.

Jaczko has frequently been critical of the industry, and has been pushing hard for the NRC to identify and implement changes needed to address the issues raised by Fukushima. The U.S., after all, has 23 Fukushima GE Mark I clone reactors currently operating -far more than any other country- and while the other four Commissioners might wish the agency would take the ostrich approach and say ‘it can’t happen here,’ Jaczko knows better.

Commissioners even mildly critical of the industry have been the exception at the NRC, not the rule. And the four Commissioners mounting the challenge to Jaczko are much more in the tradition of those who believe the industry when it speaks, believe the industry is already over-regulated, and worry that adding new regulations would help put the brakes on the already-sputtering nuclear “renaissance.” The big difference between Jaczko and the earlier critics on the NRC is this: Jaczko is the Chairman, and as such holds significantly more power than they did. Moreover, Jaczko hasn’t been afraid to use this power -the real root of the other four’s complaints.

The question for the American public is less whether Jaczko himself survives the attempted coup d’etat, although it appears he will, but whether, as Chairman, he can push through new and potentially costly regulations on the nuclear industry or whether the other four Commissioners will succeed in their drive to thwart his efforts to improve the safety of U.S. reactors regardless of the potential consequences. And the jury is still out on that issue.

Rep. Markey’s December 9, 2011 report can be found here:

Source and contact: Michael Mariotte at NIRS Washington