Tensions and disagreements between the chairman and commissioners at the nation’s nuclear regulatory body are based on organizational issues and have not impaired the agency’s mission, the White House said late Monday in response to congressional inquiries.
The conclusions came in response to questions from House Republicans who asked the White House late Friday for details of concerns raised by four commissioners with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the panel’s chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, a Democratic member of the five-member commission appointed chairman by President Obama in 2009.
In a letter sent in mid-October to White House Chief of Staff William Daley, the commissioners — two Republicans and two Democrats — said Jaczko has bullied career agency staff, ordered staffers to withhold or modify policy decisions and interacted with fellow commissioners in an intemperate fashion, actions that are “causing serious damage” to the agency and “creating a chilled work environment.”
In response, Daley said Monday that he had met individually with each of the commissioners and with Jaczko, who apologized for allowing the disagreements to be revealed publicly and vowed to meet with his fellow commissioners to resolve any disagreements.
Disputes between agency commissioners have existed throughout the panel’s history, Daley said, noting that the current disagreements “reflect organizational tensions.”
In his written response to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Daley also said the White House would not provide an official witness at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday with the five commissioners to discuss their disagreements.
In response, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said the White House “is in denial about the severity of the situation at the NRC.”
Jaczko is a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democratic lawmakers. An agency watchdog report said in June that he was “not forthcoming” with his fellow commissioners about a decision to end the review of an application for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada — a project Reid has long opposed.
In a recent interview, Jaczko conceded that NRC had faced a difficult year responding to the Japanese tsunami and subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
“I think we have a tremendously talented workforce at the agency, and challenges like Fukushima really bring out the best in the people we have,” Jaczko said.
“I think Fukushima was one of those times when people rallied,” he added. “If anything, I think it helped remind people why they do what they do and why they’re so committed to their jobs. It was a very tough environment for all federal workers in the last year, so we all look to do more with less budgets and still maintain our responsibilities for the American people.”
Jaczko was commenting in response to NRC’s slip to second from first in the annual Best Places to Work satisfaction rankings of federal employees. Concerns about employee pay — not overall leadership — caused the agency’s rankings to dip.
In a statement Monday, the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, urged the White House, Congress and NRC commissioners to quickly resolve their disagrements.
“Safe performance of nuclear energy facilities and the NRC’s credibility are the two most important factors for policymaker and public confidence in nuclear energy,” NEI President and CEO Marvin Fertel said in a statement. “As such, the industry is concerned with anything that threatens the credibility of either.”
Fertel said, however, that his group is concerned with allegations that Jaczko is fostering a chilled working environment.
“The industry takes safety culture issues seriously,” Fertel said, “and we expect the same priority treatment of these issues by our regulator.”
But Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), who chairs a Senate subcommittee on nuclear safety, said Monday that the disagreements “have not impacted nuclear safety, nor should they.”
“While I am disappointed that the five commissioners – each talented and capable in their own right – have been unable to come together as a cohesive body, I also understand that when issues as important as those facing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are being considered, differences of opinion will emerge,” Carper said.
Carper said he and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) are holding a hearing Thursday with the five NRC commissioners to review new recommendations on nuclear reactor safety.
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