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December 7, 2016

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NRC infighting ignited by Japanese nuke disaster, not Yucca Mountain standoff

Oversight committee Chairman Darrell Issa suggested in his report that the discord among members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission originated with the standoff over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

But no one mentioned Yucca Mountain, except in passing, at this morning’s hearing to examine NRC chairman Greg Jaczko’s conduct. And when asked about it, even the commissioner who Issa said had been strong-armed said the issue hadn't triggered the discord this time.

“That was a big debate last year, there were clearly different views on both sides. But I don’t think that that’s lingering. It didn’t even come up,” said Commissioner William Magwood, a Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010. “It was an issue, it was a big debate, but I don’t see it as a big debate that broke relationships. I mean after that was done, we moved on to other things and there really was no lasting impact.”

Magwood and three other NRC commissioners wrote a letter to White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley in October complaining that Jaczko’s leadership was “causing serious damage to this institution” and that Jaczko had “intimidated and bullied” staff to the degree that he has created a high level of fear and anxiety resulting in a chilled work environment.”

That fueled discontent in Congress with the NRC’s work and Jaczko’s leadership -- frustrations that in earlier hearings focused primarily on Jaczko’s position on Yucca Mountain.

But while that may be what the lawmakers -- mostly Republicans -- cared about. Based on the hearing today it doesn’t seem to be what motivated the NRC commissioners to take a stand against their chairman: What they were most concerned with was Jaczko’s conduct since March's Fukushima Daichi nuclear meltdown in Japan.

When he became aware of accident overseas, Jaczko and his staff put the NRC into monitoring mode and moved to take emergency measures that included concentrating the power of the commission in the chairman -- a move that effectively locked out the four other commissioners, who said they weren’t notified that such drastic measures were being taken, and objected to having been cut out of the process.

Since then, the other commissioners said, Jaczko has been verbally abusive to female staff in a male-dominated work environment and withheld information from the other commissioners.

Jaczko denied withholding anything, and explained the behavior Magwood described as “humiliating” and Issa termed “harassment” by saying his motives had been “misconstrued.”

“I’m very passionate about safety,” he repeated numerous times during the hearing.

The insinuation several Republican lawmakers on the committee took from that is that other commissioners weren’t as committed to public safety as Jaczko.

Jaczko, however, wouldn’t put it in those terms despite being pressed to. But his staunchest defenders already had. On Tuesday, Sen. Harry Reid, Jaczko’s former employer, said: “A number of people that worked with him as commissioners, they’re not concerned about safety. They’re concerned about the nuclear industry. He’s concerned about the American people.”

The complaining commissioners bristled at the suggestion that Jaczko -- who among the five members of the commission has spent the least time working on nuclear matters -- cares more about safety than they do.

“My sole motivation in serving on the NRC is working on advanced nuclear safety,” said Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, a Republican. “I have many family members in Wisconsin and Michigan who live near nuclear power plants...I am motivated even by my own family and their protection and safety.”

“I have spent my career working on nuclear safety issues,” said Commissioner George Apostolakis, a Democrat and former MIT professor. “I was elected to the national academy of engineers on the basis of my contributions.”

Several lawmakers also criticized Jaczko, who remained almost dispassionately composed throughout the 2 1/2 hour hearing, for not apologizing publicly for anything beyond causing a distraction or apologizing directly to his fellow commissioners.

“What in your behavior is wrong? Just name one thing, that’s all I’m asking,” said Republican Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho. “I could name 20 things that I’ve done wrong in my life if someone asked me...There’s no way these individuals would be sitting here, complaining to the United States, complaining to the [White House] staff if you hadn’t done anything wrong.”

“As I indicated, I’m very passionate about safety,” Jaczko repeated, saying he took “full responsibility” for the commission.

While several Republican lawmakers at the hearing suggested that Jaczko should step down -- something Jaczko said he had “no intention” of doing -- none of the commissioners would go that far despite describing his conduct as unacceptable.

After the hearing, Magwood suggested Jaczko should apologize not only to the other commissioners, but to the staff.

The complaining commissioners all testified under oath that Jaczko’s conduct hadn’t compromised their ability to perform their jobs but had, in the words of Republican commissioner William Ostendorff, resulted in “an erosion of trust it’s difficult to regain.” It had also led the group to believe that “there may be some harm in the future if this continues,” according to Apostolakis.

Among the changes they’d like to see:

“If the conduct were to be completely changed, there is always the potential to rehabilitate a relationship,” Svinicki said.

“He should control his temper,” Apostolakis said.

“Can you live with that, Mr. Chairman?” Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings asked Jaczko, who replied: “Absolutely.”

“When all of this is over, you gotta go back. The president’s not going to get rid of you, you’re doing a great job,” Cummings continued. “I beg you, for the sake of the American people, please, sit down, work this thing out...do what you gotta do, but make it work.”

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