'War on women' rhetoric turns nuclear power spat radioactive

The head of the US nuclear power watchdog on Friday refuted allegations that he bullies women colleagues in a controversy that involves several political subplots. 

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington in this file photo.

The nation's top nuclear-power industry regulator, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, denied in a press conference Friday that he had targeted or been abusive toward women on the commission or the NRC staff.

Allegations that NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko had been abrasive toward women on the staff, allegedly bringing some close to tears with harsh words, has been the subject of an NRC Inspector General's report and December hearings in Congress.

But the issue resurfaced this week in a political environment churning with allegations by both political parties that each is conducting a "war against women." Senior Republicans charged the White House with targeting Republican NRC member Kristine Svinicki for retribution because of her claims about Mr. Jaczko's alleged abuse.

Ms. Svinicki and the other three commissioners last fall accused Jaczko of bullying his staff, especially women, and grabbing power during the Japanese nuclear crisis.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, in floor speeches this week, suggested that President Obama would likely delay or not renominate Svinicki because of her criticism of Jaczko.

That claim appeared to be laid to rest when White House aides on Thursday said Mr. Obama does plan to renominate Svinicki to the nuclear panel for another five-year term. But Jaczko wasn't satisfied.

"There's been a little bit of talk recently about my treatment of women," he said in the hastily called briefing at the National Press Club. "I want to begin by saying that any of these accusations that I specifically target women are categorically untrue. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the men and women that work at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission."

Safety issues within the nuclear industry, he continued, were being well addressed by the commission and new efforts to communicate more effectively with his fellow commissioners were being made. Even so, he returned several times to the main theme.

"There’s a number of allegations that I think have been floating around,” he said. "This is something that I felt I needed to specifically address.”

But Svinicki's renomination, if it ever was in trouble, could have been due to other concerns. Both Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, chairwoman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, have questioned Svinicki’s position on nuclear safety. They even accused her of shading the truth about her involvement in technical evaluations of Yucca Mountain during her congressional confirmation hearing in 2007.

Meanwhile, Republicans have not seen eye-to-eye with Jaczko, who has irritated some in the nuclear industry – particularly by being the sole commissioner to oppose the licensing two new nuclear reactors in Georgia.  

During December hearings about Jaczko, Senator Boxer rallied to his aid, saying her staff had interviewed women at the NRC who defended the chairman.

“They found the opposite, in fact – that the chairman, according to one respected female staffer, was ‘the most fair person she’d ever met,’ ” Boxer said.

Jaczko's former boss, Senator Reid, came to his defense, as well.

"His No. 1 concern during the entire time he’s been at the NRC is nuclear safety,” Reid told reporters. “I’m sorry to say a number of the people who work with him at the commission are not concerned about safety at all. They are concerned about the nuclear industry.”

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