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May 3, 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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  1. Well, maybe Cooligan. But it is remarkably unusual for an independent agency to be so publicly split 4 to 1 against its Chair. It is somewhat like Fukishima: there is a big cloud and you can't tell from a distance whether than is just dust and steam or the result of a core meltdown -- without actually going in and inspecting, you can't really tell what is really going on and just how serious it is.

  2. SAFETY must come first!!!

    It seems that there are those who are beholdened to the various nuclear power industry lobbyists that would be willing to risk the public's safety so that they can maintain their lofty lifestyles. WE should be complaining about THEM, not Jaczko. Being proactive and requiring re-equipping our aging nuclear facilities and grid with safety stop-gaps will be expensive, but if we don't learn from the tragedy in Japan, we are doomed to repeat their mistake and up the road have such a disaster ourselves.

    We can only guess WHO those that are making these accusations and complaints are really representing.

    Blessings and Peace,

  3. Nuclear plants: still safer than having been a passenger in Ted "Lady Killer" Kennedy's car. Any one remember Las Vegas celebrating open air nuclear explosions with gusto because it was good for tourism? Burying nuclear waste at Yucca will do less harm so what's the big deal? It's merely another "straw man" for the Luddites to cry crocodile tears over.

  4. Remember the Washington motto: Republicans take care of themselves and the Democrats take care of everyone else. Money drives DC not people. We the people are as insignificant to Washington as cows on a farm, and as a matter of fact exactly how we are perceived. Public safety? Fair and equitable treatment of all citizens? Commissions in our best interest. This is not a fairy tale, this is reality.

  5. Since the mega-disaster in Japan nuclear power plants are going the way of buggy whips and roto-dial telephones.

    Dinosaurs were huge creatures that were not easily killed but they haven't roamed the earth for millions of years. Similarly, the outdated, unsafe nuke industry's death is a matter of when, not if.

  6. This is only the initial phase. The Stinking Lily of the Desert has yet to bloom in all it's splendor.

  7. Enjoyed the article. Although, I just want to point out the obvious.

    Mr. Jaczko is not being attacked for being incompetent, nor for doing his job, but he's being attacked because he is making logical decisions and IS INDEED doing his job. He is doing it too well in their estimation. Because they have their pockets lined with money.

    The special interests and lobbyists, along with their politicians, most of these people from Washington and South Carolina, are bound and determined to solve their nuclear waste problems by throwing it at Southern Nevada. They are so fanatical about getting their way they now have resorted to using that idiot Darryl Issa and his witch hunting team of confirmed useless House of Representative Tea/Republican goons, who do nothing but try to find an islamo/communist/socialist President Obama plot under every rock (with no success). It's now hardball politics thrown at Nevada.

    I am so tired of the mythology that is continually pounded out there regarding Yucca Mountain Project (YMP).

    There is a simple fact that most, if not all, of America's nuclear power plants were built in the 1960s/1970s, certified to operate for just about 40 years or so. Most, if not all, of these power plants are either past obsolete, or are quickly approaching it. The nuclear safety experts have decided to maneuver the regulations around to extend their safety certifications, even without any upgrades. The simple fact is they don't want to build new power plants because it is too expensive. They want to make money. So, in a nutshell, our nuclear power plant industry in America is stagnant and is basically a thousand Fukushimas waiting to happen.

    YMP is not the cure all for the woes of the nuclear industry. It's just a stopgap measure that will make the matter worse.

    One thing that gets me is we are always told this is a great thing, jobs and money will be prosperous, it's safe, you can re-process it (a pipedream that's not a perfected science), you should take it. I ask this question: If it's so great, how come other States aren't lining up to take nuclear waste? The answer is simple. THEY DON'T WANT IT!

    I've even heard the excuse that Southern Nevada was used for atomic testing before, so why not continue and turn it into a craphole of nuclear waste? NO. That legacy stops here.

    We fight them bastards tooth and nail. YMP is dead. No means no means no and it STILL means no. We would get nothing but misery out of this. And we take the chance of turning our home and all of Southern Nevada into a desolate uninhabitable wasteland.

    The fight continues. We don't want it. Take it somewhere else.

  8. I'm so glad to learn that two yellow dog Democrat Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners are carrying heavy water for the Nuclear Industry. Isn't bipartisanship grand?

    Meanwhile, 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, it's still unsafe to eat mushrooms grown in Bavaria or parts of Sweden and the wild boar in the Alps are inedible too, in each case because they are still radioactive. Active farm fields in Belarus are consistently producing radioactive crops, which are eaten by the Belorussian people who are profoundly sick with a variety of deadly maladies commonly called "Chernobyl Disease". (Published, peer reviewed public health study, NY Academy of Sciences 2011.)

    Not yet a year after the 4 reactor melt downs at Fukushima, the Democrat controlled EPA is not monitoring air, water or milk in the US. When the EPA shut down the monitoring, there were consistently high radiation readings in Hilo, Hawaii, but since nothing could be done by the USA to stop the continuing distribution of radionuclides in the air and oceans, the White House thought it best that Americans not know what radionuclides are found in fish caught in the Pacific or blowing towards America in the western winds. However a group from California, enviroreporter dotcom is doing monitoring, and unusually high radiation measurements in the ambient air have been found in Los Angeles.

    From this average American's point of view, it sounds like Mr. Jaczko is doing a good job of leading the NRC staff in formulating stronger public health and safety regulations in the event of power failures at nuclear reactors, a risk is now proven to be real.

    If there is any doubt about the need for strong protections of the public from the risks presented by currently existing nuclear reactors, one need only re-watch the final season episode of West Wing, where a disaster occurs at the nuclear reactor in San Clemente, CA. As the wind blows, a nuclear reactor disaster in California or Arizona is a risk which we Nevadans should be concerned about, and we should be happy that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairmanship is not currently in the strangle-hold of the nuclear industry. Of course the 4 nuclear industry shill Commissioners on the NRC could vote down the new, protective regulations.

    While one always knows where Republican regulators are coming from, I hope Harry Reid jots down the names of the two Democrat traitors to public health and safety who sit on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Their future careers as big-time Democrat politicians/bureaucrats should be nuked.

  9. Excuse me but I need to say something in response to the person who hinted that Secretary Chu wrote a letter endorsing Yucca Mountain that he went back on. That is not the case. He signed a letter, as did other national laboratory directors, that said the license application was of good quality and he stood behind the work contributed by his laboratory. In every statement about Yucca Mountain he never says it was unsafe, he says the nation can do better. With that I agree.

    I spent 25 years trying to convince people that Yucca would be a safe repository, and the NRC staff comments on the license application, to me, validate that claim. But I also got in very hot water in 2002 allowig myself to be cited in the press as saying Yucca was never my favorite, I would rather have gone to a shale in North or South Dakota.

    A repository in clay, or salt, would have been no safer, safe is safe. But it would have been simpler, and simpler means cheaper. Significantly cheaper. And in today's ecomonic gloom, cheaper, and yet still safe, is a very good thing.

    It is not about safety any longer, it is about economy. I am tempted to say "stupid" after that word, but that would not be appropriate.

  10. Dear Impeach: you are no doubt right, making me partly wrong. When I read that report in 2008 I was disappointed that it was not more enthusiastic about long-term safety, and I haven't looked at it since.

    I wish licensing would have gone to completion too, which is what the Secretary announced when the first death-of-YM announcement came: licensing will continue because of the lessons that will be learned about licensing a deep geologic repository in the process.

    I think it would have sailed through all the almost 300 contentions with just a few resulting licensing "conditions" imposed to work off open questions that NRC may have had.

    So I am still in the same boat as Sec. Chu: I wanted to see licensing completed, I always felt YM, as proposed, would have been safe for a million years. But it still was never my favorite, I never liked the idea that we were adding all these expensive metals into the engineered system, when if you choose a place that is away from oxygen, deep in a clay/shale or salt formation, those types of barriers would not be needed.

    Now that it looks like it is not going to happen, let's move on to something better in a place where they like repositories better, like the place that has had one operating 12 years already and wants to have its mission expanded and its life extended.

    The legalities of what was done to stop YM, your favorite topic, will be argued in court. Even though I am really curious about the outcome, and have little patience, it will improve my character to have to sit and wait for that verdict. Like everyone else.

    I appreciate the correction.