THE NEW YORK TIMES
Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — Old tensions at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are surfacing again as Republican leaders banded together Wednesday to issue a demand to the president: Renominate Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, whose term is expiring, or else.
Svinicki is one of two Republican appointees on the five-member NRC, which has played a central role in curtailing the Yucca Mountain licensing process, but more recently made headlines over the internal discord that gripped the commission in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
Svinicki was one of the first commissioners to point an accusing finger at NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who had invoked emergency authority in the days following the explosion in a manner that other commissioners thought shut them out and was unfair.
Jaczko is a former member of Sen. Harry Reid's staff.
Republican Senate leaders — one of whom has threatened to "bring the Senate to a grinding halt" if Svinicki is not renominated and reconfirmed — are now saying that if Obama does not renominate Svinicki, it will be because he wants to silence a whistleblower.
"There is no legitimate reason for Commissioner Svinicki not to have been renominated and reconfirmed by now. And any further delay is unacceptable," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. "If Commissioner Svinicki isn't renominated by June 30 ... we will be forced to conclude that the reason is related to her honorable actions as a whistleblower — that she's being held up in retaliation for speaking up against a rogue chairman who bullies his subordinates."
President Barack Obama must nominate a Republican to fill the role. But neither Obama nor Reid, who as majority leader decides whether the president's nominee goes on the Senate calendar, are particularly keen on Svinicki.
"The administration agrees that we need a strong NRC, and that will continue to be a priority. Whenever a nomination is made, it should be considered expeditiously to make sure there is no break in June," White House spokesman Clark Stevens said Wednesday.
While the White House avoided offering an opinion on Svinicki, Reid did.
"Sen. Reid opposes Commissioner Svinicki's renomination because she lied to Congress about her past work on Yucca Mountain. Furthermore, Commissioner Svinicki has an abysmal record on nuclear safety, demonstrating that she puts the interests of the nuclear industry ahead of the safety of American citizens," Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said. "Sen. Reid has consistently supported qualified Republicans for the commission and is open to supporting others, but Commissioner Svinicki has disqualified herself and does not deserve to be renominated."
So it appears we're headed for a showdown.
Reid's complaint with Svinicki goes back to 2007, when she was nominated by then-President George W. Bush to the commission. Svinicki, who had worked on energy and nuclear policy issues for Republican Sens. Larry Craig, John Warner, and John McCain, testified in her confirmation hearing that she had never touched the Yucca Mountain issue She was later shown to have co-authored reports on Yucca Mountain, as well as co-designed plans for nuclear waste management, while an employee at the Department of Energy. Those documents helped form the government's basis for pushing and ultimately siting the nation's nuclear waste dump project at Yucca Mountain.
Reid isn't about to forgive her for that episode, and for not disclosing it in her testimony.
But neither are Republicans ready to let her term of service expire.
Last year, the renomination of NRC's other Republican commissioner, William Ostendorff, was held up. He was eventually confirmed before his term was up on June 30th.
But Ostendorff hadn't had any problems of note with the White House, which had re-nominated him early. Neither were his disagreements with Reid insurmountable: They disagreed on Yucca, but he had not lied.
Republicans, however, see a different issue driving this renomination.
"Commissioner Svinicki is one of the most respected commissioners ever to serve at the NRC," McConnell said, reminding Reid and others that Svinicki was confirmed in 2007 "without a single dissenting vote."
But she took issue with the behavior of her boss, Jaczko, when she and other commissioners accused him of shutting them out and exhibiting behavior that was belittling and humiliating to female staffers.
"Commissioner Svinicki stood up to this guy, who somehow managed to avoid being fired in the wake of all these revelations, in an effort to preserve the integrity of the agency, and to protect the career staffers who were the subject of the chairman's tactics," McConnell said. "And now, for some mysterious reason, she's being held up for renomination."
The NRC's long-boiling internal discord seemed to have abated since late last year, after commissioners appeared for a series of hearings in the House and Senate. But tension over Svinicki's nomination is threatening that. It's already gone beyond McConnell's comments — and even beyond the Senate chamber, the only body that actually has a say in her confirmation (if she's even nominated).
"It is well past time for the president to renominate Kristine Svinicki to the NRC — the nation will be safer for it," House Energy and Commerce committee chairman Fred Upton said in a statement along with subcommittee chairs Ed Whitfield and John Shimkus, all of whom investigated the NRC last year. "As the NRC weathers an unprecedented storm brought on by the commission's brazen chairman, Svinicki's presence has been a welcome, stabilizing force ... President Obama is playing a dangerous game by delaying the renomination of Commissioner Svinicki, needlessly jeopardizing our nuclear future."
Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley shot back on the House floor Wednesday afternoon to oppose them.
"There are still those in Washington trying to force [a nuclear waste dump] on people of the state of Nevada," Berkley said, accusing Svinicki of being among them, and urging the Sente to ensure that "this Yucca nuclear waste-pusher does not have another term ... Thankfully her term ends on June 30."
Most Republicans have not said whether they would consider another Republican nominee, or if like Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, they would "bring the Senate to a grinding halt" if Svinicki is passed over.
A spokesman for Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller said that Heller "will oppose any nominee to the commission that supports moving the Yucca Mountain project forward" — which means he would vote against Svinicki.
Whether he'll have to cast that vote depends on what the president decides.
Reid has significant influence with the Obama administration on matters related to the NRC, whether it's defending Jaczko even when the other four commissioners have grouped together in opposition against him, or whether it's writing Yucca Mountain funding out of the federal budget — so much so that the NRC can't even pass papers on the issue, as Jaczko long argued. His opposition to Svinicki isn't likely to be discounted.
But Republican Senate leaders are building up steam in their calls for Svinicki to be nominated, scheduling press conferences to press their point this week.
Should the president refuse to submit Svinicki's name for another term, it could set the stage for a vacancy on the commission. Most confirmation votes this Congress have required a filibuster-proof majority; if the bulk of the Republicans stick together to oppose anyone other than Svinicki, confirmation won't be possible.
That could present other complications, as the more Republicans feel they are being put off, the more they are likely to accuse the White House of playing politics with the NRC, along with its chairman — potentially dragging Jaczko and his co-commissioners back for more hearings.
But Jaczko's supporters say while that may be an unfortunate side effect of the brewing Senate standoff, it's not one that's worth acquiescing over.
"I'm not saying that it won't make his life harder," said one senior Senate staffer. "But it's not a reason to let [Svinicki] sail through and be reconfirmed."