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NRC Chief’s Temper Undermining Agency, House Republicans Say

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko
Dr. Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko was “red-faced” and “shaking angry” in a July meeting with an agency executive, House Republicans said in a report about discord on the panel.

Jaczko, 41, had accused the employee, a deputy executive director, of being dishonest in a document prepared for a commission vote that didn’t reflect the chairman’s views, according to the report released yesterday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“He questioned my truthfulness, and he questioned my trustworthiness,” Martin J. Virgilio, who has worked at the NRC since 1977, told committee staff, according to the report.

Jaczko’s hostile meeting with Virgilio is among testy encounters described in the report, prepared for a hearing today on conflicts that Republicans said reflect the chairman’s “propensity for angry outbursts and aggressive behavior.” An Oct. 13 letter from all of the other four commissioners to White House Chief of Staff William Daley expressed “grave concerns” about Jaczko, named chairman by President Barack Obama.

The commission is responsible for regulating the 104 commercial reactors in the U.S. and is weighing applications for a new generation of power plants.

“The leadership of Chairman Gregory Jaczko has undermined commissioners, staff and the public confidence that the NRC can continue to remain focused on its vital mission,” according to the Republicans’ report. “Swift, decisive action is desperately needed to restore the integrity of the NRC.”

Defending Safety

Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Jaczko’s former boss, came to his defense and said he is under attack for seeking tougher safety standards for the nuclear-power operators the commission regulates.

“I’m sorry to say a number of the people that work with him are not concerned about safety,” Reid told reporters yesterday. “They’re concerned about the nuclear industry. He’s concerned about the American people, the so-called consumer.”

Jaczko, in a Dec. 7 letter to Daley responding to his colleagues’ concerns, said the commission’s majority has “loosened the agency’s safety standards” over his opposition.

“I tend to argue vociferously for my positions, and I think that’s healthy,” Jaczko said during a Dec. 8 interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters office in New York.

The chairman “will be happy to discuss these issues during his appearance before the committee,” Eliot Brenner, a spokesman for Jaczko, said yesterday in an e-mail.

Protecting Public

“The NRC’s failure to protect the public existed long before Gregory Jaczko became the NRC chairman,” Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in a statement yesterday. “Congress should not be sidetracked into thinking he is the source of the problem or that his removal would be the solution.”

Daley told the House committee in a letter that the divisions at the NRC stem from different views of the chairman’s authority.

“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 Dec. 12 letter.

Jaczko should be removed as chairman to restore trust in the agency and its “ability to regulate our nuclear industry,” Representative Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who heads the energy and power panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said yesterday in a letter to Obama.

‘Out of Hand’

The committee report cites a meeting between Jaczko and Commissioner Kristine Svinicki in her office that “got out of hand,” prompting her to request that he leave. He remained in the office, according to the report, citing an interview with Jeffry Sharkey, Svinicki’s chief of staff.

“I can see the chairman is very agitated, he is sitting down, but he is clearly very agitated,” Sharkey told the committee staff. He said Svinicki’s request that Jaczko leave “got him to calm down a little bit.”

The Republicans’ report said Jaczko may have let political considerations influence the commission’s actions. His chief of staff suggested that Commissioner William Magwood, appointed by Obama, may be viewed as disloyal for a vote in favor of continuing work on Yucca Mountain, a nuclear-waste repository the Energy Department moved to kill after Obama opposed the site during the 2008 campaign, according to the report.

Yucca Mountain

Jaczko, a former science adviser to Reid, a long-time opponent of the Yucca project, has denied that politics played a role in his decisions.

“His actions undermine the commission structure and demonstrate a blatant disregard for decades of established practice at the NRC,” the report said of Jaczko.

Jaczko has attributed his executive authority to powers granted to the NRC chairman in 1980, following a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the previous year.

Other commissioners have a “lack of understanding” about their role on the regulatory board, which is limited to “policymaking, rulemaking and adjudications,” Jaczko said in his letter to Daley. He called his colleagues’ accusations “absurd.”

“Chairman Jaczko’s interpretation of the scope of his authorities far exceeds that of his predecessors and more closely aligns with the concept of a single administrator,” the Republican report concluded. “His actions in light of Congress’s clear preference for a commission structure illustrates the extent to which Chairman Jaczko has betrayed the public trust.”

‘Gaveled Down’

Jaczko’s temper flared at a July 18 meeting when he “gaveled down a fellow commissioner in mid-sentence” amid objections to his plan for reactor safety after Japan’s nuclear crisis, “stormed out” and announced his proposal at a news conference, according to the report.

NRC staff were “forced to adapt” to Jaczko’s vision of the agency’s actions after the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, caused by a March earthquake and tsunami, it said. The NRC chairman has also used his status as chief executive to pressure staff to support him, according to the report.

“This tactic leaves NRC staff to decide between following the chairman’s orders to the dismay of the majority” or “disobeying the chairman and incurring his wrath,” it said.

The themes raised by the committee echo a June 6 report by the agency’s inspector general, which said Jaczko “was not forthcoming” with his colleagues about his intent to stop work on Yucca Mountain and questioned his management style.

“Jaczko acknowledged that he sometimes loses his temper,” Inspector General Hubert T. Bell said in his report, which found that the NRC chairman acted within the law.

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