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October 10, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Scuffle at NRC has stench of industry influence behind it

Committee expresses ‘concerns’ about leader who’s helping keep nuclear waste out of Nevada


Karoun Demirjian

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko answers a battery of questions pertaining to Yucca Mountain from members of the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment May 4, 2011.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Let’s apply the usual Washington rules — nothing is what it seems and the motives of the accusers are often questionable — to a dust-up at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Nuclear regulatory issues are of the utmost importance to Nevada because even though President Barack Obama killed the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, many in Washington, including in the industry, fantasize that Yucca is the government equivalent of Rasputin and can’t be so easily killed.

Here’s what’s happened, though as often is the case, the surface facts don’t tell us what’s really going on.

In October, four members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the commercial nuclear industry and its public health and safety, sent a letter to the White House expressing “grave concerns” about the “leadership and management practices” of the chairman of the commission, Gregory Jaczko.

The four commissioners who wrote the letter, two Democrats and two Republicans, said Jaczko, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has “intimidated and bullied” senior staff, leading to a “chilled” work environment. They also charge that he has acted with “intemperance” and “disrespect” toward other commissioners.

The allegations have triggered a hearing on Wednesday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in which Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wants the White House to weigh in on Jaczko’s leadership skills.

To begin with, if these incivility issues were cause for termination in Washington, half the government would be left unstaffed. More to the point, the lack of specificity of the charges is revealing.

Indeed, according to the government’s Office of Personnel Management, which surveys federal employees, the NRC is one of the best places to work in the federal government, which would seem to contradict the commissioners’ case.

Moreover, far from being paralyzed, the commission has held 38 public meetings, 10 closed meetings, 14 planning sessions and issued dozens of decisions just this year.

Meanwhile, lessons learned from an NRC task force is helping us prepare for nuclear disasters like the one that befell Fukushima, Japan, earlier this year.

So despite the alleged dysfunction, the commission and the staff seem to be quite busy.

According to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who released a report Friday saying as much, it’s the other four commissioners who are impeding progress on safety reviews in the wake of Fukushima.

People I talked to say this row is really about the strong record of Jaczko on nuclear safety and public health issues, including on Yucca Mountain.

The nuclear industry knows he won’t carry its water, so industry allies are trying to force him out.

According to one NRC observer, Jaczko is pushing hard for policies that will prevent blackouts at nuclear plants; much of the catastrophe at Fukushima can be pegged to power failures after the earthquake and tsunami there.

This could be expensive and complicated — and thus unloved by some in the industry — but given what we’ve seen at Fukushima, it’s worth doing.

Click to enlarge photo

Sen. Harry Reid swears in Gregory B. Jaczko as a commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Thankfully, Jaczko has some powerful allies, including Reid and Markey, for whom he also worked.

Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman issued a statement of support for Jaczko, saying he has “focused the NRC on its core mission: nuclear safety.”

The statement continued: “It is sad to see those who would place the interests of a single industry over the safety of the American people wage a politically-motivated witch hunt against a man with a proven track record of making sure nuclear power is produced as responsibly as possible."

Rep. Shelly Berkley says the four NRC members targeting Jaczko are simply trying to "turn our state into a radioactive wasteland," while Sen. Dean Heller complained that the commissioners "should be focusing on the safety of the American public, not internal politics."

Although there are many important safety issues at play in this fight, an important subtext -- as Berkley and Heller recognize -- are attempts by the industry and its allies to stall for time with the hope that a new president revives the Yucca Mountain project.

Our state's congressional delegation needs to recognize the maneuverings of the four NRC commissioners for what they are, an effort to get Jaczko out of the industry's way.

The Nevada delegation should oppose efforts to get rid of Jaczko, and they should call the White House and tell Obama to do the same.

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