U.S. Nuclear Agency Suffers Leadership Meltdown

Dec 14, 2011
Originally published on December 14, 2011 7:12 pm

The government organization charged with keeping nuclear power safe is having a meltdown. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission consists of five commissioners who direct the work of hundreds of nuclear engineers and other experts. They write the rules for how nuclear reactors operate.

Now four of those commissioners say the chairman of the NRC is a bully who's destroying their ability to do their job.

The feud at the NRC is long-standing, but it boiled over last week when a letter the four commissioners wrote to the White House was made public. In no uncertain terms, they said they simply can't stand NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

At a meeting of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday, all five sat down together in a House hearing room and listed their grievances:

"The chairman's continued outbursts of abusive rage directed at subordinates within the agency staff — all members of the commission, including me, have been on the receiving end of this conduct," said Kristine Svinicki, one of the NRC commissioners.

"I'm most concerned that the chairman has made a regular practice of interfering with the ability of the commission to obtain information from the NRC staff," said Commissioner William Magwood. He also said that Jaczko once berated three female staff members to the point of tears.

And Commissioner William Ostendorff had this to say about Jaczko: "It's about bullying and intimidating behavior towards NRC career staff that should not and cannot be tolerated."

While they stopped short of calling for Jaczko's resignation, the commissioners said they feared for NRC's ability to function.

Congressional members of the committee were more blunt. Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah read the charges the commissioners made in their letter to the White House and demanded answers from Jaczko:

Chaffetz: "True or false: Ignored the will of the majority of the commission contrary to the statutory functions of the commission."
Jaczko: "I have never ignored the will of the majority in an area that is a commission policy."
Chaffetz: "I'll take that as a false. True or false: Interacted with us, his fellow commissioners, with such intemperance and disrespect that the commission no longer functions as effectively as it should."
Jaczko: "Well, I'm a very passionate person about safety."

Jaczko's response wasn't enough for Chaffetz.

"We've got people who are suffering under this gentleman right here," Chaffetz said. "He is not living up to the duties. I don't believe you. I think the safety and security of this nation is too important. I think you should resign."

However, when the commissioners were asked whether, in fact, the turmoil at NRC had compromised safety at power plants, they said no.

And committee member John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat, noted that the four commissioners might share some blame. Jaczko's supporters in Congress — and he has many, having worked there before he went to the NRC — have accused the other commissioners of dragging their feet in releasing NRC's report on the Fukushima accident and what it meant for U.S. reactors:

Jaczko: "I think we have had some challenges with ..."
Tierney: "Did you feel that there was an attempt to slow down the release of that report on Fukushima?"
Jaczko: "There definitely was an attempt to prevent the release of the report."
Tierney: "It seems we've got a problem with everybody here."

Jaczko denied the accusations, except to say that he can be outspoken about safety. But advocates of nuclear power have targeted Jaczko because he helped deep-six the idea of putting a nuclear waste dump in Nevada, called Yucca Mountain.

A view from the outside of the Washington hothouse comes from Peter Bradford, who spent five years as an NRC commissioner. He says this isn't just about Republicans vs. Democrats.

"There is a sort of nuclear party that transcends Republican and Democratic labels," Bradford says. "The four signers of the letter are all very much in the nuclear party, and the chairman is not."

When asked at Wednesday's hearing if they could patch this up, all four commissioners said maybe. And in fact, according to the NRC website, the commission is described as a "collegial body" that regulates nuclear safety. On Thursday, a Senate Committee will query the witnesses again.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

And I'm Lynn Neary. The government organization charged with keeping nuclear power safe is having a meltdown. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission consists of five commissioners, and they direct the work of hundreds of nuclear engineers and other experts. They also write the rules for how nuclear reactors operate. But now, four of those commissioners say the chairman of the NRC is a bully who's destroying their ability to do their job.

That and more came out today in a hearing before the House committee on oversight and government reform and NPR's Christopher Joyce was there.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The feud at the NRC is long-standing, but it boiled over last week when a letter the four commissioners wrote to the White House was made public. In no uncertain terms, they said they simply can't stand NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko. And today, a congressional committee sat all five down together in a House hearing room and let them list their grievances.

KRISTINE SVINICKI: The chairman's continued outbursts of abusive rage directed at subordinates within the agency staff, all members of the commission including me have been on the receiving end of this conduct.

WILLIAM MAGWOOD: I'm most concerned that the chairman has made a regular practice of interfering with the ability of the commission to obtain information from the NRC staff.

WILLIAM OSTENDORFF: It's about bullying and intimidating behavior towards NRC career staff that should not and cannot be tolerated.

JOYCE: Those were commissioners Kristine Svinicki, William Magwood and William Ostendorff. Magwood added that Jaczko had once berated three female staff members to the point of tears. While they stopped short of calling for Jaczko's resignation, the commissioners said they feared for NRC's ability to function.

Congressional members of the committee were more blunt. Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah read the charges the commissioners made in their letter to the White House and demanded answers from Jaczko.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: True or false, ignored the will of the majority of the commission contrary to the statutory functions of the commission?

GREGORY JACZKO: I have never ignored the will of the majority in an area that is a commission policy.

CHAFFETZ: I'll take that as a false. True or false, interacted with us, his fellow commissioners, with such intemperance and disrespect that the commission no longer functions as effectively as it should?

JACZKO: Well, I'm a very passionate person about safety.

JOYCE: Jaczko's response was not enough for Chaffetz.

CHAFFETZ: We've got people who are suffering under this gentleman right here. He is not living up to the duties. I don't believe you. I think the safety and security of this nation is too important. I think you should resign.

JOYCE: However, when the commissioners were asked whether, in fact, the turmoil at the NRC had compromised safety at power plants, they said no. And committee member John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat, noted that the four commissioners might share some blame. Jaczko's supporters in Congress, and he has many, having worked there before he went to the NRC, have accused the other commissioners of dragging their feet in releasing NRC's report on the Fukushima accident and what it meant for U.S. reactors.

JACZKO: I think we have had some challenges with...

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN TIERNEY: Did you feel that there was an attempt to slow down the release of that report on Fukushima?

JACZKO: There definitely was an attempt to prevent the release of the report.

TIERNEY: It seems we've got a problem with everybody here.

JOYCE: Jaczko denied the accusations, except to say that he can be outspoken about safety. But advocates of nuclear power have targeted Jaczko because he helped deep-six the idea of putting a nuclear waste dump in Nevada, called Yucca Mountain. A view from the outside of the Washington hothouse comes from Peter Bradford, who spent five years as an NRC commissioner. He says this isn't just about Republicans versus Democrats.

PETER BRADFORD: There is a sort of nuclear party that transcends Republican and Democratic labels. The four signers of the letter are all very much in the nuclear party, and the chairman is not.

JOYCE: When asked at today's hearing if they could patch this up, all four commissioners said maybe. And in fact, according to the NRC website, the commission is described as a collegial body that regulates nuclear safety. Tomorrow, a Senate committee will query the witnesses again. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.