Members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have said they’re willing to work together after four of them accused Chairman Gregory Jaczko of bullying employees and creating a toxic work environment.
That’s about to be tested. Jaczko, 41, remains in place after two congressional hearings last week that aired the feud between him and all of his commission colleagues, and now the panel is poised to decide on the nation’s first permits to build new reactors in more than 30 years.
“The distance among them does not appear to be a show- stopper,” Phil Sharp, a former Democratic House member from Indiana who serves on a commission to study nuclear-waste storage options, said in an interview.
In addition to the permits being sought by Southern Co. (SO) and Scana Corp. (SCG), the commission is weighing rules to improve plant safety after the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi facility in March and reviewing seismic risks following the earthquake that temporarily shut down reactors at Dominion Resources Inc.’s North Anna plant in Virginia.
Jaczko, who was elevated to the commission’s chairmanship by President Barack Obama in 2009, joined in a majority this month backing certification of the AP1000 reactor design from Toshiba Corp. (6502)’s Westinghouse Electric that Atlanta-based Southern and Scana of Cayce, South Carolina, plan to use.
The commission tentatively scheduled a Dec. 22 meeting to make final their approval of the reactor design. At the meeting, the members may signal whether the commission will overrule Jaczko on how quickly to act on permits to build the Southern and Scana reactors.
The companies are seeking expedited approval within days after this week’s meeting, and a majority may grant it. Commissioner George Apostolakis has said he backs moving quickly, while Jaczko said he wants a 30-day review first.
The NRC is returning to its regulatory duties after two days of congressional hearings last week where Jaczko’s colleagues, backed by Republican lawmakers, said he refused to share information with them and berated employees. His explosive temper was causing “serious damage” to the agency, the other four members wrote in an Oct. 13 letter to White House Chief of Staff William Daley.
Jaczko, backed by Democrats, denied the accusations and said in a Dec. 7 letter to Daley that a commission majority has “loosened the agency’s safety standards.”
‘I Will Listen’
Jaczko said he had “no intention” of stepping down. His colleagues said they were both willing to work with the chairman and skeptical that he would take a new approach.
“If he is committed to changing his way of doing business and behavior, then I will listen,” Commissioner William Ostendorff told the Senate Environment and Public Works committee during a Dec. 15 hearing. “If we had great confidence that things were going to change, we would not have sent the letter to the White House.”
Nuclear-plant owners are most concerned about what Jaczko’s critics called a chilled work environment “at a time when the senior management and staff are working on critical licensing activities and post-Fukushima safety recommendations,” Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, said in a Dec. 12 statement. “The NRC functions best when it has a full complement of five capable commissioners.”
Commissioner William Magwood, a fellow Democrat who accused Jaczko of verbally abusing three female employees in separate instances, said he and Jaczko didn’t speak between the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing on Dec. 14 and the Senate panel’s session the next day. When the hearings ended, Jaczko didn’t linger to speak with reporters or to his colleagues.
“It’s not in my nature to completely give up on people,” Commissioner Kristine Svinicki said of Jaczko at the Dec. 15 hearing.
The same day, the agency approved a list of actions to be implemented “without unnecessary delay” as the NRC considers post-Fukushima safety rules. They include requiring plant owners to re-evaluate seismic and flooding risks and steps to handle a loss of power.
Magwood told reporters after the Dec. 14 hearing that he didn’t think the rift with Jaczko would affect licenses for new reactors.
The agency’s consideration of license extensions for operating plants may be slowed because the NRC is short on resources, in part due to its activities related to the Fukushima crisis, Jaczko said at the Dec. 15 hearing.
‘Revenge for Yucca’
Criticism of Jaczko is “really revenge for Yucca Mountain,” Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear-energy adviser at Fairewinds Associates Inc., a Burlington, Vermont-based energy research company, said in an interview. “The nuclear industry and Congress have hated him” since Jaczko halted agency work on a nuclear-waste dump planned for the Nevada mountain, according to Gundersen.
Obama sought to kill the Yucca repository, and the NRC has stopped work on its review of the project.
Jaczko “was not forthcoming” with other commissioners about his intent to end its evaluation of the Yucca site, according to a June 6 report from the NRC’s inspector general, which also questioned his management style.
The controversy over the NRC’s review of the Yucca Mountain license application “was behind us a long time ago,” Jaczko said during a Dec. 6 meeting with reporters at the agency’s Rockville, Maryland, headquarters.
Republicans have said Jaczko halted the NRC’s Yucca-related work for political reasons, which he has denied. Jaczko is a former science adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, a long-time opponent of the waste dump.
The disagreements over Jaczko’s personality and temperament that were voiced last week were echoed in interviews with those who have worked with him in the past.
Jaczko was a “strong, confident, soft-spoken leader” when he worked for Reid, Susan McCue, a former chief of staff for the senator, said in an interview. “He was a team player all around,” she said.
Paul Dickman, who served as chief of staff for former NRC Chairman Dale Klein, said in an interview that Jaczko should step down.
“Greg’s not a consensus-builder,” Dickman said.
The NRC chairman told senators at the hearing he will talk to his colleagues and “do whatever’s appropriate to remedy the situation.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Wingfield in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at email@example.com