Nuclear safety: NRC chairman is a tyrant, colleagues tell Congress

Four commissioners from the NRC, the federal agency that oversees nuclear safety at power plants, told Congress Wednesday that their chairman is a bully who is poisoning the commission.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/File
Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees nuclear safety at power plants, speaks in the White House in this file photo.

In a heated congressional hearing today, four members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission testified that the fifth – Chairman Gregory Jaczko – had usurped his authority, kept key information from them, and bullied commission staff.

The four NRC commissioners testified that the strife had not compromised the group’s oversight of the nation's nuclear reactors, which generate nearly a fifth of the nation's electricity. But they said safety could ultimately be affected by the chairman's tight control, which was poisoning the NRC's traditionally collegial environment.

In particular, commission members suggested that Chairman Jaczko has become dictatorial during the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan – single-handedly activating the NRC's emergency monitoring station, enacting emergency measures that gave him extra powers, and initiating a “lessons learned” task force. 

Commissioners said they were not informed or consulted on the moves and were also given little information about the Fukushima meltdowns.

Moreover, such behavior stretched beyond the Japan crisis, the commissioners added.

Jaczko was determined to be the sole gatekeeper for issues and information to come before commission, to the point that some staffers feared his reaction if he disagreed with their expert analysis, said Commissioner William Magwood IV in his written statement.

Some female staffers, he added, had borne the brunt of occasional "raging verbal assault." As a result, staffers “loyal to the normal functioning of the agency” had to form an “underground network” behind his back to keep other commissioners informed, Mr. Magwood added.

The NRC's "historic values have been compromised," said Commissioner William Ostendorff. Left uncorrected, "this trend damages the ability of the NRC staff and the commission to carry out its nuclear safety mission."

But despite calls for his resignation from some Republicans, Jazcko refused to acknowledge that he had made any mistakes – other than needing to communicate better – since he was appointed by President Obama in 2009.

"I have no plans to resign because I continue to believe that under my leadership the agency has performed very well,” he said in a soft voice. “We have commit ourselves to safety – and I believe my record shows that."

Democrats offered support for Jaczko, a former member of staff for Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada. They suggested that, in the past, the NRC had been too docile when confronted with safety issues and that changing the agency's culture might be a good thing.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the "current chairman has exhibited one of the strongest records of safety of any chairman."

He added that an earlier inspector general's investigation had uncovered no violations of law or instances where the safety of a power plant had been compromised.

Nuclear-industry watchdogs agree.

"Jaczko has proven himself to be a public servant who takes his job regulating the nuclear industry seriously," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight in a statement. "Given the stakes involved, which the Fukushima disaster in Japan made clear, we should expect the NRC chairman to be aggressive in pursuit of safety."

Asked about the charges that some staff women at the NRC were intimidated by his managerial style, Jaczko said he could only recall one incident that might have been construed that way, but dismissed it as merely a discussion.

He added: "If there's ever been a time where I've made someone feel uncomfortable I always like to know so I can take whatever actions necessary to remedy that."

Nuclear industry groups noted concerns about such allegations, with the the Nuclear Energy Institute citing “a chilled working environment at the agency … including the possibility of staff intimidation and harassment" in a statement Monday.

But Ms. Brian of the Project On Government Oversight suggested that the hearing could have political motives: "We doubt the nuclear industry would be sad to see Jaczko go."

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