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April 25, 2014

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The Policy Racket

New report says Yucca Mountain at the root of Nuclear Regulatory Commission tensions

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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.

WASHINGTON — We already knew that the four commissioners who serve with Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko were upset enough with his leadership to complain to top White House officials that he acted inappropriately in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in March.

But a report from the Oversight committee's Republican chairman released on the eve of the first hearing Jaczko will face on Capitol Hill this week suggests those frustrations first began to fester over the NRC's dealings with Yucca Mountain — a project Jaczko, a former employee of Sen. Harry Reid, has advocated for halting in its tracks, just like his former boss.

Rep. Darrell Issa’s report on Jaczko charges Jaczko with ruling “through intimidation and the inherent leverage of his position” to force politically-motivated outcomes — including putting the Yucca nuclear waste repository on ice.

Issa accuses Jaczko of withholding information and threatening public exposure of a recalcitrant Commissioner William Magwood, a Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama whom Issa suggests would have voted to keep the Yucca mountain dump-site project going were it not for Jaczko’s intervention.

The report quotes Ho Nieh, the chief of staff to Commissioner William Ostendorff, a Republican who drafted and circulated a memo protesting Jaczko’s direction to begin shuttering Yucca last year. “Commissioner Ostendorff, he told me that — he said, yeah, I got a call from Bill Magwood,” Nieh is quoted as saying in the report. Nieh is then cited as quoting Magwood saying: “I'm not able to participate . . . Greg is putting too much political pressure on me on this one.”

The report also finds that Jaczko’s chief of staff, Joshua Batkin, suggested to Magwood he “should be concerned that a vote in favor of an Action Memorandum that would have continued work on Yucca Mountain might leak and be viewed as a lack of support for the Administration.”

Batkin is quoted in the report as saying that NRC decisions "should not be political ... I don't think that your vote should be partisan."

The report then concludes: “This type of behavior further undermines the public’s ability to trust that the Chairman’s actions are those of an independent safety regulator.”

But if Magwood is the central player in Issa’s report, it might also strengthen the case Jaczko’s defenders are making: that Magwood and others were acting in interest of the nuclear industry and not in favor of the public interest, thus forcing Jaczko to act as forcefully as he had to to serve the public interest.

Nuclear development has never been fully pushed off the table, but it's hit a pause in the United States for more than three decades. No new nuclear power plants have been built in this country since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 — and there's a real fear alive in the wake of the Fukushima disaster that the country will recoil from nuclear development entirely, as some more-nuclear dependent nations, such as Germany, have done.

That's not well-supported by the actions of the administration or the NRC. Obama administration Energy Secretary Steven Chu has advocated for nuclear development continuously, and even as he comes under fire from his colleagues on the Commission, Jaczko has been advancing the certification processes for new reactors through the official pipeline.

But the tension between the industry interest and the public interest when it comes to nuclear energy is playing out nonetheless in the U.S. Congress.

Rep. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts whom Jaczko also worked for in Congress, also released a report on the situation at the NRC last Friday, in which he found that “the other NRC Commissioners attempted to slow down or otherwise impede the adoption of the safety recommendations made by the NRC task force on Fukushima.”

Markey’s report sticks to the post-Fukushima disaster complaints; it does not delve into the Yucca mountain issue.

But his accusation that the other commissioners were not putting public safety first jives with what Reid, one of Jaczko’s most ardent supporters and one of the Yucca nuclear waste project most vigorous opposers, says of the current chairman.

“His number one concern during the entire time he’s been at the NRC is nuclear safety, Reid said Tuesday, adding that the country and the world were “fortunate ... to have the good work that he did” in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

“A number of people that worked with him as commissioners, they’re not concerned about safety,” Reid continued. “They’re concerned about the nuclear industry. He’s concerned about the American people.”

According to a letter sent from White House chief of staff Bill Daley — the initial recipient of the four commissioners’ letter of complaint — Jaczko has apologized, and the matter is settled: the White House is continuing to back Jaczko as chairman through his term, which ends in June 2013.

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