By Andrew Restuccia and Ben Geman
Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have told the White House that NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko is causing “serious damage” to the agency that could harm the body’s ability to protect health and safety.
An Oct. 13 letter from Jaczko’s four NRC colleagues to White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley is a powerful, unified rebuke of the agency’s leader by his fellow commissioners, who cite “grave concerns” about his conduct and allege it’s increasingly “erratic.”
“We believe that his actions and behavior are causing serious damage to this institution and are creating a chilled work environment at the NRC,” states the letter to Daley from NRC commissioners Kristine L. Svinicki, George Apostolakis, William D. Magwood, IV, and William C. Ostendorff.
“We are concerned that this will adversely affect the NRC’s central mission to protect the health, safety and security of the American people,” the letter adds.
Svinicki and Ostendorff are Republicans, the other three NRC commissioners, including Jaczko, are Democrats.
The four NRC members laid out their concerns to Jaczko directly in an Oct. 13 memo that mirrors the complaints in their letter to Daley. The memo tells Jaczko of the letter to Daley and acknowledges it is an “extraordinary step,” while adding that Jaczko has left them without “viable alternatives.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the letter to Daley Friday evening.
The NRC is the independent agency that regulates the country’s 104 nuclear power reactors.
The letter comes at a time when the NRC is grappling with issues including safety upgrades in the wake of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant and weighing industry applications to build the first new U.S. reactors in decades.
The four commissioners say Jaczko, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), has “intimidated and bullied” senior staff; ordered staff to withhold information meant for NRC members; and tried to “intimidate” an independent NRC committee from reviewing aspects of the NRC’s analysis of the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The letter also alleges that Jaczko has “ignored the will” of the majority of the commission and treated his fellow commissioners with such “intemperance and disrespect” that the commission no longer functions as effectively as it should.
Jaczko defended his leadership on the commission in a Dec. 7 letter to Daley released Friday by the NRC.
He acknowledged that there are often major policy disagreements on the commission, adding that he believes the commission “has taken an approach that is not as protective of public health and safety as I believe is necessary.” But he said he respects their right to disagree.
“I follow the law, I respect the policy duly established by the Commission even if I disagree with it, and I faithfully executive Commission policy as I oversee the staff of the agency,” he said.
Jaczko argued that the commissioners have a “lack of understanding” of their statutory responsibilities. They are responsible for “policymaking, rulemaking and adjudications,” while the chairman is in charge of “all other functions.”
The commissioners are raising concerns about management decisions that are in the chairman’s purview, Jaczko said in the letter.
“I seek to consult with my colleagues on a great number of the decisions I make whether they are policy or management related,” he said. “I do not always agree with their suggestions and advice, however, and that has led to a circular claim that if I exercise my statutory authority I am somehow abusing them.”
Jaczko apologized to Daley for “any distractions” the disagreements on the commission may have caused and said he takes “responsibility for improving the level of our dialogue.”
The letter comes amid simmering tensions on the commission.
NRC Inspector General Hubert Bell released a report in June that alleged Jaczko “controls information” provided to the other NRC commissioners by designating issues as administrative matters, which he has control over, rather than policy matters.
“Because he acts as the gatekeeper to determine what is a policy matter versus what is an administrative matter and controls information available to the other commissioners, they are uncertain as to whether they are adequately informed of policy matters that should be brought to their attention,” the report, which was requested by House Republicans, says.
The report also raised questions about Jaczko’s handling of the decision to stop work on a multi-part evaluation of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in light of the Obama administration’s decision to abandon the long-delayed project.
Additionally, the commission has disagreed in recent months over how to deal with the recommendations of a task force assigned to reevaluate the country’s nuclear safety regulations in light of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.
The report called on the commission to make sweeping improvements to NRC’s “existing patchwork of regulatory requirements and other safety initiatives.”
Jaczko called on the commission to quickly evaluate the report and implement the necessary recommendations. But the commissioners initially resisted Jaczko’s call for swift action. Ultimately, they agreed to move forward quickly on the recommendations identified by staff as the highest priority.
All five NRC members are slated to testify at the House hearing next week, according to Issa’s office.
Issa, in a letter to Daley Friday, asks the White House to designate a witness for the hearing.
“The White House has now been aware of the Commissioners concerns for nearly two months, and the public deserves to understand what actions have been taken and whether the President still believes that Chairman Jaczko is capable of leading the NRC,” Issa writes.
Meanwhile, a panel of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will examine the post-Fukushima task force’s recommendations at a hearing Thursday.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee’s top Republican, said in a statement Friday evening that he’s taking the NRC commissioners concerns very seriously, and commends their “courage” for coming forward.
But amid the newly revealed attacks on Jaczko, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a senior Democrat and longtime critic of nuclear power, issued a report Friday that blames the other four NRC commissioners for stymieing NRC efforts to boost safety after the Fukushima disaster.
Markey accuses Jaczko’s four NRC colleagues of attempting a “coup.”
“The actions of these four Commissioners since the Fukushima nuclear disaster has caused a regulatory meltdown that has left America’s nuclear fleet and the general public at risk,” Markey said in a statement.
“Instead of doing what they have been sworn to do, these four Commissioners have attempted a coup on the Chairman and have abdicated their responsibility to the American public to assure the safety of America’s nuclear industry. I call on these four Commissioners to stop the obstruction, do their jobs and quickly move to fully implement the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster,” he said.
This story was updated at 8:08 p.m.