The NRC Goes, Well, Nuclear

Troubling allegations emerge against the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

By + More

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is supposed to be above politics. Its primary concern, nuclear safety, is not nor has it ever been considered by most of those who work there a Democratic or Republican issue.

Under the leadership of the current chairman, Gregory Jaczko, however, things have grown quite testy. So much so that in October the commissions other four members—two Democrats and two Republicans—wrote a letter to White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley to let him know they believed the chairman's

actions and behavior are causing serious damage to this institution and are creating a chilled work environment at the NRC. We are concerned that this will adversely affect the NRC's essential mission protect the health, safety and security of the American people.

[ See a slide show of 6 vulnerable potential terrorist targets.]

Jaczko was a surprising choice from the beginning. A former aid to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, his appointment to the commission was seen by many as a way for the Nevada Democrat to get a man inside the NRC to help derail the completion of the planned nuclear waste repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. And, under Jaczko's tenure, the commission has taken controversial steps to put an end to the Yucca Mountain project.

Nevertheless it is Jaczko's efforts to operate the commission as sort of a chief executive officer rather than in the more traditional "first among equals" role usually adopted by the NRC chairman that has people most concerned because of the ways in which it might compromise U.S. nuclear safety.

[ Read the U.S. News debate on whether the United States should consider using military action to hinder Iran's nuclear program.]

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been looking into the issue and, earlier this week, released a report looking into what has been going on at the NRC. A congressional press release explains,

"The Oversight Committee's investigation of leadership problems plaguing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission substantiates concerns raised by the group of four bipartisan commissioners who have told the White House that Chairman Jaczko is creating a chilled environment while seriously damaging this agency and its critical mission of ensuring nuclear safety," said Chairman Issa. "The commission and its career staff are facing a crisis. Downplaying these serious problems won't resolve them."

Key findings of the report include:

  • Chairman Jaczko and his staff used political considerations to try to intimidate and influence other Democratic Commissioners' votes on matters related to Yucca Mountain.
  • Chairman Jaczko pressured staff to support his policy priorities in order to gain leverage over his colleagues on the Commission.
  • Chairman Jaczko's aggressive behavior and attempts to threaten or intimidate his colleagues prevents constructive discussion among Commissioners and undermines the NRC's deliberative process.
  • Chairman Jaczko became "shaking angry" and accused the Deputy Executive Director for Operations of being dishonest when a vote paper delivered to the Commission did not conform to his desires, interests, or views. Staff had already significantly altered the paper to conform to the Chairman's vision.
  • Chairman Jaczko stated an expectation that he should see voting papers before they are shared with his colleagues. Having prior access to voting papers would allow the Chairman to pressure staff to pull back or otherwise edit papers contrary to his policy priorities. This instruction represented a "defining moment" for the Deputy Executive Director for Operations.

The committee will continue to look into the situation, with a hearing scheduled Wednesday where all five commissioners are scheduled to give testimony.