The White House finds itself in the role of supporting a Republican for reappointment to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

pretzelsThe pretzel politics of life in Washington took on new twists this month. The White House nominated sitting NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for another term over the objections of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)  Svinicki occupies a “republican” seat at the NRC, but Reid’s ire isn’t about partisan distinctions.

It is no small thing for the White House to send a nomination forward against the wishes of the Senate Majority Leader.  However, the President’s hand was forced by Senate Republicans who saw an opportunity to make hay over the delay in sending her name forward for confirmation.

svinickiSvinicki (left) has been an outspoken critic of Reid’s former aide and now Chairman of the NRC Gregory Jaczko.  She called for him to resign during a hearing last December before the House Oversight Committee.

Her reasons were based on charges that Jaczko was verbally abusive to women who worked for him at the NRC and that his erratic management style was detrimental to the safety mission of the regulatory agency.  Jaczko has denied the accusations as “categorically untrue.”

Also, when she was an aide to powerful republicans in the Senate, she disputed efforts by Jaczko to stop work on the development and licensing of the Yucca Mountain spent fuel site located at a desolate site in Nevada. 

Reid has made it an article of faith that Yucca Mountain will never open hence his vitriolic attacks on Svinicki.  He accused her of lying at her first confirmation hearing a charge she has denied. 

Svinicki’s nomination has another formidable challenge in the Senate in the form of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee. 

Boxer has said that she will hold hearings in time to clear the nomination for a senate vote prior to the expiration of Svinicki’s first term on June 30th.  Boxer and the other Senate Democrats have to decide whether they will stand with the White House, and against Reid, to support Svinicki’s confirmation. 

Calculating the outcome on the merits?

Mobius roller coasterThe political calculus of the situation is daunting so this blog turned for advice to one of its long standing sources of seat-of-the-pants wisdom. Our friend Jenkins Hill is no stranger to the ways of Congress.

He told me Svinicki has a strong case to make on the merits of her record during her first term at the NRC.  Plus, he said, she stands out as a consensus seeker in terms of working with the other NRC commissioners.

Hill is good with numbers and he says things could add up support for Svinicki in the Senate.  In true DC fashion, Hill gave it to me in talking points.

  • Svinicki voted on a total of 135 publicly-available, policy or rulemaking-related matters from 2008-2012.
  • Of these, Svinicki's votes generally approved the NRC's staff recommended action 91% of the time (123 of 135 votes).
  • Svinicki voted with the majority of the Commission in 96% of these votes (130 of 135).
  • During the same period, either as a commissioner or as chairman, Greg Jaczko differed from the majority in 21% of publicly-available voting matters (29 of 135 votes). In 93% of these cases, he was the lone dissenter (27 of 135 votes).
  • From 2008 to 2012,  Svinicki participated in 102 adjudicatory voting matters. Of these, she voted with the majority approximately in 98% of the cases (100 of 102).
  • She only entered dissents on two occasions, both times being joined by Comm. Apostolakis.
  • During this same time period, either as Chairman or as a Commissioner, Greg Jaczko dissented 18 times. Each time, he was the only vote in opposition.

Those are interesting numbers, but it will take more than this type of arithmetic to swing enough Senate votes to confirm her.  Support from outside the beltway also matters.

ANS supports Svinicki

The American Nuclear Society weighed in with a statement of support for Svinicki to be reappointed to the NRC. The 11,000 member organization said in a press statement;

Ms. Svinicki is a nuclear engineer and policy advisor and is well qualified to continue service as an NRC Commissioner. She has extensive nuclear technology experience. She is a longstanding ANS member, where she served two terms on the ANS Special Committee on Nuclear Non-Proliferation. In 2006, the Society honored her with a Presidential Citation in recognition of her contributions to the nuclear energy, science, and technology policies of the United States. “

In addition to ANS, the Nuclear Energy Institute issued a statement in support of confirmation of Sviniki’s nomination.  While NEI is decidedly an insider when it comes to DC politics, it is important to note it represents the nuclear utilities that own and operate the nation’s 104 reactors.

Here’s what NEI said . . .

“NEI has maintained that for the NRC to operate at peak effectiveness, it’s necessary to have a full complement of five commissioners to work on important regulatory issues. This is especially the case as the agency is considering new safety measures for U.S. plants as an outgrowth of the Fukushima accident last year, above and beyond its normal workload. “

My friend Jenkins Hill is a big fan of the Star Trek movies and tends to describe politics in science fiction terms.  His closing observation about Svinicki’s nomination is right along these lines. He said “the Svinicki starship has left space dock, but there are a lot of Klingons out there.”