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Fight among nation’s top nuclear regulators gets airing before Congress

A political dogfight over new recommendations for boosting safety at US nuclear power plants in the wake of Fukushima is moving from behind closed doors at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission into the nation’s Capitol.
Front and center is NRC Chairma

A political dogfight over new recommendations for boosting safety at US nuclear power plants in the wake of Fukushima is moving from behind closed doors at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission into the nation’s Capitol.

Front and center is NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who is set to be grilled in hearings before the House Wednesday and in the Senate Thursday over his management style. He is alleged to have “intimidated and bullied” the agency’s senior staff and ordered them to modify or exclude vital information before it reached the four other members of the commission for their evaluation.

Those and other indiscretions by Mr. Jaczko have damaged the NRC’s ability to do its job in keeping America’s 104 nuclear reactors safe, the four other commissioners (two Republicans and two Democrats) argued in a private memo to him that was penned in October and was recently released.

This past weekend, that key memo along with letters, documents, and dozens of internal NRC e-mails — as well as a detailed report defending Jaczko — became public. The communications reveal a battle royal going on for months behind the scenes. In one version of the fight, outlined in the memo and a Dec. 9 letter to White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley from Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of Calif., Jaczko is a power monger who cut his fellow commissioners out of the loop in developing new safety plans. In his letter, Representative Issa suggests that Jaczko be fired by President Obama, who appointed him as chairman after he took office in 2009.

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The other version of events, however, depicts four commissioners who, rather than trying to push through key safety measures expeditiously, instead drag their feet at every step while Jaczko pushes and prods them to implement a task force’s tough new safety recommendations within the next five years.

That case is laid out in a 45-page study buttressed with commissioners’ internal e-mails. The study was put forward by Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, a frequent critic of the nuclear power industry and the NRC — and a former employer of Jaczko, who was an aide specializing on the nuclear power issue.

At the core of the fight are a dozen post-Fukushima safety recommendations laid before the commission in July by a special task force of veteran NRC safety inspectors. Among their recommendations were crucial improvements to ensure safety in the event of natural disasters like earthquakes and flooding, steps to ensure that nuclear plants can shut down safely during extended loss of regular power from the grid, and instruments that can measure the condition of spent fuel held inside cooling pools.

“We write to express our grave concern that your leadership and management practices are causing serious damage to this institution,” the four other members of the commission wrote in the “not for public disclosure” memorandum. It accuses Jaczko of “intemperate and disrespectful behavior,” storming out of meetings, and yelling at fellow commissioners over the phone.

More seriously, the memo also claims that Jaczko used his authority to remove information from the task force report before it was presented to the commission for its review. Jaczko is expected to argue that he, as chairman — who has special authority during emergencies — simply removed a memorandum by a member of the NRC staff who was not a member of the commission. The commission had already voted to review the task force report unvarnished and unaltered by others’ views.

A major concern is whether Jaczko has assumed too much authority and power over NRC operations after the Fukushima meltdown. A June report by the NRC inspector general found that despite concerns over his management style, he had done nothing illegal. A new inspector general’s report about subsequent claims of management malfeasance has been requested by Issa and is due out soon.

While the four commissioners have complained that they were kept out of the loop and unable to do their jobs during the Fukushima crisis, Jaczko defenders say that Congress specifically delegated that authority to the chairman after the failure of the NRC to act expeditiously after the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown.

Despite the pressure on Jaczko, the White House continues to back him. In a Dec. 12 letter from the White House, Mr. Daley informs Issa that after interviewing all the commissioners and Jaczko, he had determined that Jaczko had “acted within his legal authority.”

This past weekend, the nuclear power industry weighed in with a statement expressing concerns.

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“The issue that is of most concern is the question of a chilled working environment at the agency, including the possibility of staff intimidation and harassment, at a time when the senior management and staff are working on critical licensing activities,” said Marvin Fertel, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s president and chief executive officer.

But nuclear safety critics said the fight is not fundamentally about an individual but about a commission that has long catered to the nuclear power industry.

“The NRC’s failure to protect the public existed long before Gregory Jaczko became the NRC chairman,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement. “Congress should not be sidetracked into thinking he is the source of the problem or that his removal would be the solution.”

The House and the Senate should “ask the commissioners about the four dozen reactors that still are not in compliance with fire safety regulations that were originally established in 1980 and amended in 2004,” said Ms. Gronlund.