David Goldman/AP

Power struggle at watchdog agency could undermine nuclear-plant safety

Lawmakers overseeing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continue to raise questions about whether it is functioning effectively.

Until the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan and a very public internal feud late last year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was a fairly obscure federal agency with primary responsibility for regulating the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants.

But when the other four NRC commissioners—two Democrats and two Republicans—ganged up on Chairman Gregory Jaczko last year, accusing the Democratic appointee of bullying and intimidating his fellow commissioners and agency staff, the backwater agency based about 15 miles outside of Washington was suddenly in the spotlight with a good old-fashioned, inside-the-Beltway melodrama.

Six months later, things have settled down at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md., at least on the surface, but the bitterness caused by the controversy still seems to linger and many lawmakers overseeing the agency continue to raise questions about whether NRC is functioning effectively at a critical time for the nuclear industry.

In a recent interview with National Journal, Jaczko spoke calmly about the debacle. Sitting in his office on the top floor of the agency’s headquarters, the embattled chairman’s words were measured. Reiterating what he has now said many times about the blowup, Jaczko argued that disagreements at an independent commission like NRC are the sign of “a healthy culture.”

“If people wanted everyone who agreed, then they’d save the money and they’d just have one person in charge,” Jaczko said.

There are dozens of independent boards and commissions in Washington, from the National Endowment for the Humanities to the Federal Communications Commission, but rarely has one of them had its dirty laundry displayed like the NRC’s was late last year.

“That was a really unusual circumstance,” former NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, a Democrat, told National Journal in March. “There often are disagreements, but this was one that was very public and that’s unusual.”

The four other commissioners at the NRC wrote a letter in October to then-White House Chief of Staff William Daley, charging that Jaczko had created “a chilled work environment” at the agency by bullying and withholding information from his fellow commissioners. After House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., released the letter in December, the floodgates opened, and in hearing after hearing, commissioners testified to lawmakers that Jaczko verbally abused female employees and snapped at fellow commissioners and agency staff.

Republican lawmakers in both chambers called for the chairman’s resignation, but Jaczko has been steadfast in saying he has no plans to step down. The White House and most Democrats, including the chairman’s former bosses Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., have stood by him.

When Congress returned for its second session in January, it looked as though the firestorm had passed. The commission, plunging itself back into the shadows of regulatory humdrum, went back to its work, dealing with post-Fukushima safety reforms and issuing the first new reactor licenses in the United States in decades.  

All five NRC commissioners appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in March, discussing industry safety reforms after Fukushima and appearing to have a united front before lawmakers.

NRC Commissioner William Magwood, a Democrat who was in some ways the leader of last year’s upheaval, told reporters after the hearing that “the atmosphere at the NRC is a bit better than it was a few months ago.”

“We went through a very difficult time, everyone put their thoughts on the table, and we’ve moved on,” Magwood said, adding that the commission has been focused on its work amid “the distractions of the last six months or so.”

Regardless of the image they have put forth, however, there are still visible signs of disagreement among the commissioners. Most significantly, when the commission issued license approvals in February and March for four new reactors—two at a plant in Georgia and two at a plant in South Carolina—the chairman was the lone dissenter in both 4-1 votes.

“I think there’s still mistrust among the commissioners,” former NRC Chairman Dale Klein, a Republican, told National Journal in March. “While that’s not on the front page, I think it’s still lurking,” said Klein, who in the midst of last year’s clash called for Jaczko to resign.

“Trust is something you earn, it’s not a right, and so I think there still is some concern among the other commissioners … if you lose 4-1, as chairman, you’re not doing a good consensus-building,” Klein said.

“I think there’s a fundamental lack of communication, lack of trust,” Klein added, saying that the White House letter and the dissenting votes by Jaczko demonstrate the “disfunctionality” of the agency.

Jaczko has since defended his votes against the new reactors, saying that he and his fellow commissioners simply disagreed over the means of implementing new safeguards.

“We had a disagreement, but nonetheless we moved forward with issuance of the license,” he told National Journal in March. “I wasn’t comfortable doing that, but there was clearly a majority of commissioners who were, so I thought it was appropriate that we move forward and we issued the license,” Jaczko said, again noting that disagreements are healthy for the five-member commission.

This kind of obvious friction, though it may be simply over regulatory policy, just fuels the fire for those would prefer to keep last year’s controversy alive.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, chairman of the House Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee, told Jaczko in March that his voting is a troubling sign that all is still not well at the agency, while Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, called the “apparent, and perhaps real, friction” at the agency “disturbing.”

After Jaczko’s most recent dissenting vote on two new units at Scana’s Virgil C. Summer plant in South Carolina, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., called Jaczko “the lone obstacle blocking a full embrace of our nuclear future.” Though he praised the commission for approving the new licenses, Upton noted that he is still “deeply concerned by the politicization that has contaminated its leadership.”

In the Senate, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, didn’t shy away from the opportunity to call out Jaczko for his vote as well.

“I'm not surprised that NRC Chairman Jaczko opposed the license for these reactors in South Carolina just has he opposed the license for the reactors that will be built in Georgia,” Inhofe said, aligning the controversial agency head with President Obama.  

“The good news is that despite the Obama administration's efforts to stop energy development in this country, these reactors will be built, thousands of jobs will be created, and Americans will have increased access to reliable, affordable energy,” Inhofe said.

Meanwhile, the NRC's inspector general is still conducting an investigation of last year’s allegations and whenever a report is released, it is sure to reopen some of these wounds. An IG report last June already criticized the chairman for not being “forthcoming” with his fellow commissioners leading up to the shutdown of the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository in Nevada.

Despite the still-swirling controversy, the NRC's employment website, along with Jaczko himself, continues to tout the agency as “a great place to work.” For many years now, even including 2011, the agency has topped the list of rankings for best places to work in the federal government. Whether that superior ranking will stay put, however, likely depends on whether the embattled regulatory agency can plunge itself back into the obscurity from which it emerged last year.