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Rift at nuclear agency put under spotlight

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 9:48 PM EST, Wed December 14, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • All four commissioners of the NRC testified before congressional committee
  • They blast NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, calling him "intimidating," "hostile"
  • Flanked by his accusers at the hearing, Jaczko appeared unfazed by the criticism
  • Commissioners say the situation hasn't affected safety yet, but could in the future

Washington (CNN) -- It was, in the words of one congressman, a "Caine Mutiny," Washington-style.

All four commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- charged with safeguarding the nation's 104 nuclear power plants -- assailed their leader Wednesday, testifying to Congress that NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko had "bullied" senior officials at the agency, restricted access to information and concealed the fact he had seized executive powers during the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan early this year.

The commissioners, demure in style and soft-spoken in words, were effusive in their criticism.

Jaczko (pronounced Yaz-koh) had engaged in "outbursts of abusive rage" against subordinates, said Commissioner Kristine Svinicki.

The "chilled" work environment was like a "growing cancer," said Commissioner William Magwood.

If nuclear industry executives had exhibited similar behavior, said Commissioner William Ostendorff, they would be "subject to investigation and potential enforcement action."

Asked if they had lost confidence in Jaczko's ability to lead the agency, the two Republican members, Svinicki and Ostendorff, both answered yes. The two Democrats equivocated, Commissioner Magwood saying he had "doubts" about Jaczko's leadership abilities.

But the four commissioners were unanimous when asked if Jaczko had intimidated NRC employees, or engaged in hostile and offensive conduct. All answered "Yes."

"Ladies and gentlemen, that's the definition of harassment," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Jaczko, who was flanked by his accusers at the House hearing, appeared unfazed by the criticism, saying repeatedly that NRC employees had "misconstrued" his words and deeds, that he was "very passionate" about safety, and that his passion was reflected in his style.

"In other words, they (the four commissioners) are all wrong, and you're exactly right?" said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

Chaffetz called on Jaczko to resign, but Jaczko said he had no intention of doing so. He said he would agree to "sit down with a third party, someone that we can all agree on" to work out problems.

That prompted one congressman to reply in disbelief, "We need a counselor for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission? We need a counselor for that?"

Friction between Jaczko and the commissioners first surfaced last year after some commissioners accused him of using administrative procedures to kill a controversial plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Commissioners said Jaczko misled them about the consequences of his administrative actions, or kept them in the dark entirely.

In June, a report by the Inspector General appeared to clear Jaczko of any legal wrongdoing, but the independent investigator later testified that "one could draw (the) conclusion" that he (Jaczko) had violated a statute to keep commissioners informed.

The internal squabbling reached extraordinary levels recently, when the four commissioners wrote a letter to the White House complaining about Jaczko. In an October 13 letter, the commissioners expressed "grave concerns" about his leadership.

According to the letter, Jaczko ordered staff to withhold or modify policy information and recommendations intended for transmission to the commission, attempted to intimidate the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards to prevent it from reviewing certain aspects of NRC's analysis of the Fukushima accident; and ignored the will of the majority of the commission. Jazcko also interacted with the commissioners "with such intemperance and disrespect that the commission no longer functions as effectively as it should."

A report by the staff of Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, portrays Jaczko as being deeply concerned about nuclear safety in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and the four commissioners as tools of the industry who wanted to slow down safety enhancements to nuclear power plants.

"We must move away from the 'do nothing' culture of the NRC," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, said in a letter supporting Jaczko.

But commission members Wednesday bristled at the suggestion that they were playing politics, or that they cared less about safety then did Jaczko.

"I regret that our letter (to the White House) is being portrayed by some members of Congress as politically motivated. It is not," said Ostendorff. "This letter is about management actions that have significantly eroded the prized open and collaborative work environment of our nation's nuclear safety agency."

Commissioners Wednesday said they did not believe the acrimony at the NRC is impacting the safety of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors. But they said continued dysfunction in the agency could lead to that.

"Left uncorrected, this trend damages the ability of the NRC staff and the commission to carry out its nuclear safety mission," said Ostendorff.

"Today, it is routine for individual members of the staff to come to commissioners to alert us about issues they believe require commission attention but that staff can't get through the chairman," Magwood said in a written submission to the committee. "That the commission has come to rely on the personal bravery of individuals on the staff to keep us informed is a very sad statement. But sadder still is the fact that when staff is not willing to take these risks, the commission is sometimes left in the dark."

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