A dispute over management issues at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn’t stymied its work and stems from the way the panel is structured, White House Chief of Staff William Daley said.
Daley, in a letter yesterday to the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also said the White House won’t send a witness to testify at a hearing this week on complaints made by NRC commissioners against their chairman, Gregory Jaczko.
“We have concluded that while there are tensions and disagreements among the commissioners, these management differences have not impaired the commission’s ability to fulfill its mission,” Daley wrote in the letter released last night by the White House.
The rebellion at the NRC comes as the Obama administration is embroiled in energy disputes over the Keystone pipeline and the failure of Solyndra LLC. The agency is responsible for regulating the 104 commercial reactors in the U.S. and is considering applications for a new generation of power plants.
Oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, was seeking a White House representative to appear at a hearing tomorrow on allegations made by the four other NRC commissioners against Jaczko, who was appointed chairman by President Barack Obama.
“As for the committee’s hearing this week, we respectfully decline your invitation to provide a witness,” Daley wrote to Issa.
The congressman responded with a statement critical of the White House.
“With four bipartisan commissioners raising deeply troubling concerns about abuse and mismanagement at the NRC, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that the White House is in denial about the severity of the situation at the NRC,” Issa said.
The NRC declined to comment last night, agency spokesman Eliot Brenner said in an e-mail.
The four other commissioners, holding two Democratic and two Republican seats, complained to Daley in October that Jaczko is causing “serious damage” to the agency. Jaczko responded to Daley that a commission majority “loosened the agency’s safety standards” over his objections.
Daley wrote that after the complaints were made in October, he met individually with Jaczko and the four commissioners on two occasions. He found that all members of the NRC are committed to “fulfilling the agency’s mission and to upholding the institution’s values.”
The inspector general concluded that Jaczko acted within his legal authority and the other commissiers have the ability to bring any issue to a vote, Daley wrote.
Republican lawmakers are investigating the administration’s $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, a solar-panel maker that filed for bankruptcy in September. They are also trying to force Obama to speed a decision on TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL oil pipeline, which the administration plans to make after the 2012 elections. This week, a House panel will probe the NRC discord.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which released the commissioners’ complaint to the White House on Dec. 9, plan to quiz Jaczko and his critics on their rift at tomorrow’s hearing. The commissioners will return to Capitol Hill the next day for a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the agency’s actions in response to the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The NRC is considering regulations to improve safety at U.S. nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster and weighing whether to award Southern Co. and Scana Corp. the first permits to build new U.S. reactors in more than 30 years.
Commissioners George Apostolakis and William Magwood IV, who hold Democratic seats on the nuclear panel, and Commissioner William Ostendorff joined the commission in 2010. Ostendorff and Kristine Svinicki, a member of the panel since 2008, hold Republican seats. President George W. Bush named Jaczko to the NRC in 2005, and Obama promoted him to chairman in 2009.
‘Circular Firing Squad’
“For the president’s own appointees to be involved in a circular firing squad is unusual,” Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner and a Vermont Law School professor, said in an interview. The dispute is “certainly going to distract the commissioners and their offices from other agency work,” he said.
Fissures in the NRC’s leadership became public on May 4, when Ostendorff told reporters after a House hearing that Jaczko didn’t consult with his colleagues when recommending that Americans stay at least 50 miles (80.5 kilometers) from the Fukushima site.
The differences date back at least to Jaczko’s efforts in 2010 to act on Obama’s campaign promise to abandon plans to store radioactive waste under Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
A report by the NRC inspector general in June determined that Jaczko “was not forthcoming with the other commissioners about his intent to stop work” on Nevada project, which was backed by the nuclear-power industry. The report also cast him as a manager who acknowledges that “he sometimes loses his temper.”
Republicans have said Jaczko stopped work on the Yucca project for political reasons. The NRC chairman, a former science adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who opposes storing waste at Yucca, has said he acted within the law and without political motivation.
Jaczko’s colleagues have a “lack of understanding” of their role on the commission, particularly during the agency’s response after Fukushima, the NRC chairman said in a Dec. 7 letter to Daley, a rebuttal to the Oct. 13 letter the other NRC commissioners sent.
While the NRC is responsible for writing regulations and policies that govern the industry, “all other functions,” including emergency response, are the chairman’s responsibility, a change put in place following a 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Jaczko said.
‘Contempt’ and ‘Disdain’
Jaczko has “intimidated and bullied senior career staff” and is creating a “chilled work environment” that may affect the NRC’s safety mission, according to the commissioners’ letter. He also showed “contempt” for the commission and “open disdain” for its procedures at an Oct. 5 meeting of the agency’s Executive Director for Operations, they said. Jaczko’s office issued a statement saying the other commissioners didn’t attend the meeting.
“This issue that is of most concern is the question of a chilled working environment,” Marvin Fertel, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group, said in a statement yesterday. “We are confident that Congress and the White House will take the steps necessary to ensure that the NRC is an efficient, effective regulator.”
Southern Co. of Atlanta, which is seeking to build two reactors at its Vogtle nuclear plant near Augusta, Georgia, remains confident the NRC will grant it a license for the project this month, Steve Higginbottom, a Southern spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Democratic lawmakers, including Senator Barbara Boxer of California, said Jaczko is under attack for making the NRC a tougher enforcer of safety for the nation’s nuclear plants.
“We must move away from the ‘do nothing’ culture of the NRC and support Chairman Jaczko as he translates the lessons of Fukushima into an action plan that will make America’s nuclear plants the safest in the world,” Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a Dec. 10 statement.