Four commissioners write to the House Oversight Committee blaming Chairman Gregory Jaczko about a toxic atmosphere

Update: 12/13/11: White House issues apology from Jaczko

Next Wednesday December 14 the House Oversight Committee will hold a very unusual hearing in which four NRC Commissioners will air their complaints about NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

All four are so unhappy with the way Jaczko does business at the NRC that they
signed a letter October 13 to White House Chief of Staff William Daley detailing how badly things are going at the agency.

Current circumstances have the appearance of the heat and smoke of lava flowing down the side of a Hawaiian volcano and setting off clouds of steam as it flows into the ocean.

Not to be deterred, Jaczko
sent a rebuttal on Dec 7 claiming that his colleagues at the agency are soft on safety and that he is the only thing standing between a complacent nuclear industry and an accident waiting to happen.  Rep Ed Markey (D-Mass) issued a fiery press release late Friday night charging that there is a conspiracy to undercut nuclear safety at the NRC.

The
Associated Press has detailed coverage of the back-and-forth in the letters. The New York Times has additional coverage.

Last June Jaczko was the subject of a
harsh investigative report by the NRC Inspector General. While the IG found no laws had been broken, it was critical of Jaczko's management style. It appears that since then things have simply gotten much worse.  In a webinar I conducted with Jaczko last October, he was unapologetic about his management style.

Lid comes off on White House correspondence

All of the letters have been kept under wraps by the White House. President Obama has no apparent interest in annoying Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who wants to keep Jaczko in place to continue to bottle up the Yucca Mountain license from ever seeing the light of day.

The House Oversight Committee wants some answers, but even if they get a he said, she said type hearing, at the end of the day, the 'so what' question is whether the four NRC commissioners stuck their heads out for nothing.

Washington is consumed with political battles over a failing economy and Congress, with the failure of the budget Super committee, has set off a mad scramble to prevent "deus ex machina" type legislation from wrecking what's left of the federal budget.

Who's going to pay attention to a dust up at a federal regulatory agency where no one speaks plain English? Yes, preventing a Fukushima type accident in the U.S. is important, but is this dispute going to stand in the way of the NRC's mission? The four commissioners think it will, but Jaczko has some high cards in his hand and will play them for all they are worth.

What the House Committee will cover
 

Rep. Darrel Issa
R-Calif

 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif) said

“We believe that [Chairman Jaczko’s] actions and behavior are causing serious damage to this institution and are creating a chilled work environment at the NRC. We are concerned that this will adversely affect the NRC’s essential mission protect the health, safety and security of the American people.”

The Oversight Committee’s request to the White House comes after it obtained the October 13 letter from the four NRC commissioners last week in the course of its ongoing investigation into the operations and decision making of the NRC.

“The President has the authority to take action to address these concerns,” Chairman Issa wrote in his letter to Daley.  “The White House has now been aware of the Commissioners concerns for nearly two months, and the public deserves to understand what actions have been taken and whether the President still believes that Chairman Jaczko is capable of leading the NRC.”

The Full Committee hearing entitled “The Leadership of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission” will take place at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, December 14th in 2154 Rayburn House Office Building.  Chairman Gregory Jaczko, Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, Commissioner George Apostolakis, Commissioner William Magwood, and Commissioner William Ostendorff will testify.

Does it matter?

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko
at the White House

From the point of view of the White House, the situation may look like a personality conflict run amok rather than a dispute over how to regulate nuclear power plants.

In the current political environment, Obama may not care what happens at the NRC, or what the other NRC commission members think, so long as he continues to appear to Nevada's voters that he is keeping his promise to stop Yucca Mountain.

That means keeping Jaczko in place no matter no badly he fails to get along with the other commissioners.

Sen. Reid has no interest in allowing a scenario to play out that will force Jaczko to resign thus removing the one fulcrum he has for leverage to keep his promises to Nevada's voters about Yucca Mountain.

The nuclear industry might privately say that Jaczko is a pain in the neck, but he did
vote today for certification of the AP1000 reactor design and indicated that combined construction and operating licenses to build four of them are not far behind.  And, Jackzo has ammunition to use to defend his record.

  • He can make the case for a "red" finding at Browns Ferry,
  • The NRC basically saved the Omaha Public Power District from itself earlier this year by insisting it beef up flood control measures at Ft. Calhoun,
  • The short-term recommendations of the NRC's task force issued last July on Fukushima are reasonable and even NEI agrees many can be implemented with little apparent pain.
People who follow the NRC much more closely than this blog tell me that in the world of nuclear safety regulation, having a dysfunctional relationship among the commissioners, especially with four of them lined up against the chairman, is itself a threat to safety. It means they are paying more attention to their disputes than they are to the agency's business.  That's the real "so what" as seen from here.

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