NRC chairman appears to weather attacks on his personality

Hearings divide lawmakers on whether tensions stem from differences over nuclear safety.

Embattled Nuclear Regulatory Commission Gregory Jaczko emerged from House and Senate hearings on Thursday unmoved by calls by some Republican for his resignation, but expressing -- reluctantly, it appeared -- a desire to work out management-style differences with disgruntled fellow commissioners.

The personality issues are entangled in debate over how to apply to U.S. nuclear plants lessons learned from the meltdown last April at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant -- an issue on which the NRC took a vote on Thursday. Four NRC commissioners in October sent the White House what one characterized as "an unprecedented" letter complaining that Jaczko displayed a bad temper, mistreated staff and impeded the flow of information from staff experts to other commissioners. On Tuesday, House Government Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., released a report titled "How the Actions of Chairman Gregory Jaczko are Damaging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," based on review of 25,000 documents and transcribed interviews with 15 NRC employees.

The report accused Jaczko and his staff of using "political considerations to try to intimidate and influence" other Democratic commissioners' votes on matters related to the now-cancelled plan to store nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain; pressuring staff to support his policies to "gain leverage" over other commissioners; and engaging in "aggressive behavior" that prevents "constructive discussion" among commissioners.

At a House hearing on Wednesday, one of the commissioners, Republican appointee William Ostendorff, said he had "lost faith" in Jaczko's ability to lead the commission. Democratic appointee William Magwood reported that the chairman had verbally abused three female staffers. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Jaczko ought to resign. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., used language suggesting that Jaczko belonged in prison, and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, told the chairman, "I've never seen such self-deluded behavior by any individual probably in my whole life."

Jaczko stuck to previous statements that he has "often engaged my colleagues in discussions about safety and that's been my style," adding that he had up until that point not heard of the complaints from the three women.

On Thursday, he appeared with the other four commissioners at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where he used prepared testimony to review recent action on lessons from the Japan incident and highlighting NRC accomplishments -- including top rankings in recent surveys of employee satisfaction by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

The issues of his treatment of women, temper flare-ups and failure to share information with other commissioners were raised by Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and David Vitter, R-La.

Barrasso asked whether the allegations of outbursts and ignoring colleagues were merely a "distraction." Jaczko replied, "I welcome congressional oversight, and if there are challenges, I have meetings to work through the issues." He added, however, that "resource challenges" sometimes mean the chairman has to reduce the amount of often-voluminous information going to other commissioners.

Vitter asked Jaczko whether he had apologized to any colleagues for his behavior. Jaczko said he "will talk to my colleagues, and I intend to do whatever is appropriate to remedy the situation." He acknowledged that "clearly, I have some work to do in this area."

Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the issue was not Jaczko's management style but "how fast we're going to move on nuclear safety…The commission is slow-walking the staff," she said.

The commissioners disagreed, each giving examples of instances when, they said, their efforts to get "unfiltered" views of staff on safety issues were thwarted by Jaczko.

Following the House hearing, Boxer issued a statement saying, "instead of focusing on nuclear plant safety, a House committee conducted a witch hunt and attempted to assassinate the character of a dedicated public servant. Frankly, I was shocked and appalled."

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del, chairman of the panel's Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee, said he was "disappointed that the five commissioners, each talented and capable in their own right, have been unable to work together as a cohesive body…. Recent disagreements among commissioners, while significant, have not impacted nuclear safety, nor should they," he added.

Carper asked all the commissioners whether day-to-day staff work had been compromised. All said no. Nor would they comment directly on whether the chairman is "fit" to serve.

Off Capitol Hill, the behavior of Jaczko as a manager does not appear foremost on the agendas of players in the field of nuclear energy safety. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, reaffirmed a Dec. 12 statement from its president and chief executive officer, Marvin Fertel, saying, "The industry's commitment to nuclear power plant safety is unwavering and we will not be distracted from this mission by events at the NRC."

He added, however, that the issue "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 and post-Fukushima safety recommendations."

The Union of Concerned Scientists released a statement calling the public dispute "a sideshow obscuring the longstanding problem with the NRC… Simply put, the agency has failed to ensure U.S. nuclear power is as safe as it should -- and could -- be." The safety concerns existed long before Jaczko arrived, the group said.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said, "Jaczko has proven himself to be a public servant who takes his job regulating the nuclear industry seriously."

Ty Slocum, director of Public Citizen's energy program, told Government Executive that "while it has become more clear this revolt has a lot to do with personality and management style clashes, some of it is about a split with the chairman about reactions to the Fukushima incident." Tensions rise and things get heated, he added, "and the chairman probably should have acted in different ways." But the commissioners had other more appropriate avenues available to them before airing things publically the way they did, he said. The incident "forces us to re-evaluate the NRC's cozy relationship" with industry.