As the United States continues to weigh its nuclear energy policy in the wake of Japan's Fukushima Daichi plant crisis, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been dealing with a small disaster of his own. His job may be at stake after a recent inspector general's report revealed that he kept fellow commissioners in the dark about his actions to slow the approval of a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the report, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko—who was not present—came under attack, mostly from Republicans, over the findings. The inspector general's report says that Jaczko broke no laws, but several lawmakers, including a leading Republican on the Energy and Commerce committee, Kentucky Rep. Ed Whitfield, are calling for his resignation. [Read more coverage about energy and the environment.]
"After a year in limbo, it now appears that the NRC Chairman devised a complex, calculated strategy to kill the license application without consideration by the Commission," said Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, in his opening statement Tuesday.
The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project, meant as a national repository for storing spent fuel rods, has been harshly fought since even before it was assigned to the site in 1987. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who represents constituents in Nevada, has been one of those most staunchly opposed, and the president in 2010 announced plans to terminate the project by requesting an end to its funding.
Republicans are now saying that Jaczko, who previously worked as Reid's science policy adviser, used "intimidation" through his post to inappropriately stop the regulatory committee's review of a Department of Energy license application for the facility. Many are concerned by the money already spent by taxpayers and nuclear utilities to fund the Yucca project since the 1980s, and others are unhappy with the overall management at the commission. [Read more recent coverage about the Republican Party.]
"This is more than Chairman Jaczko. This is about the American people and the American taxpayer, who have already spent over $10 billion preparing for Yucca Mountain," said Whitfield on the panel. "It's an abuse of his authority."
However, Democrats, like California Rep. Henry Waxman, defended Jaczko, saying that his actions were consistent with law.
Jaczko will be on the hot seat on Thursday when he appears in the Senate to testify about the commission's nuclear safety review in the United States following the Japan nuclear emergency. [See photos from the disasters in Japan.]