Jaczko goes nuclear, say underlings

The country’s top nuclear power regulators are in open revolt against the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), alleging Wednesday that he has overstepped his authority, verbally abused staff and withheld key information from colleagues.

The high-profile public rebuke of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko’s leadership marks the second time in recent months that a top Obama administration energy official has come under fire. House Republicans have criticized Energy Secretary Steven Chu for approving a $535 million loan guarantee to the failed solar firm Solyndra. But unlike Chu, Jaczko is getting it from subordinates as well as lawmakers.

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The four NRC commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — testified along with Jaczko, a Democrat, at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday.

Republicans have pounced on the commissioners’ complaints about Jaczko, with some even calling on the chairman to resign.

“I’ve never seen such self-deluded behavior by an individual in my life,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said at the hearing, referring to Jaczko.

But Jaczko said he will not step down.

“I have no plans to resign, because I continue to believe that under my leadership the agency has performed very well,” he told the committee. “We have committed ourselves to safety, and I believe my record shows that.”

The hearing comes several days after committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released a mid-October letter from the commissioners to the White House arguing that Jaczko’s behavior is causing “serious damage” that could prevent the agency from carrying out its core mission. The White House responded this week that NRC infighting does not threaten safety.

Commissioner William Magwood, a Democrat, raised concerns at the hearing about what he called Jaczko’s “abusive behavior toward the staff.” He said he spoke with three NRC women employees who have been berated by Jaczko.

“One woman told me that she felt the chairman was actually irritated with someone else, but took it out on her,” Magwood said, declining to identify the women.

“Another said she was angry at herself for being brought to tears in front of male colleagues. A third described how she couldn’t stop shaking after her experience. She sat, talking with her supervisor until she could calm down sufficiently to drive home,” Magwood said.

Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, a Republican, echoed Magwood’s concerns, describing “continued outbursts of abusive rage directed at subordinates within the agency’s staff.”

Svinicki said she was informed by a senior NRC staff member that Jaczko told staff in October “to advance his agenda … at the price of having their own, independent assessments and recommendations.”

Svinicki said the commission’s executive director of operations told her, “We were pretty much instructed to leave our brains at home.” 

The commissioners also accused Jaczko of withholding key information from them, a move that Magwood said “is contrary to both the letter and the intent” of a 1980 plan that reorganized the structure of the NRC to give the chairman more authority.

William Ostendorff, a Republican, said Jaczko’s behavior as chairman is unprecedented.

“I can honestly say that I have never seen an environment where the highest level of the organization does not reflect the values shared by the whole,” he said.

But Democrats sought to temper the criticism of Jaczko on Wednesday.

“These allegations are not allegations of criminal misconduct,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said. “I think that we have to put this in perspective and continue to insist that the commission focuses on safety.”

Still, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, expressed frustration with the infighting on the commission.

“I’ve come to beg you to work this thing out,” he told the commissioners. “To sit down like reasonable people and work it out. The American people are tired of dysfunction.”

Jaczko, who was nominated to the commission by President George W. Bush in 2005 and designated as chairman by President Obama in 2009, defended his leadership, insisting that he has never bullied staff or withheld information from commissioners.

“I believe that many of these instances that they are referring to have been misconstrued,” Jaczko said. He added that he would work to improve communication with the commissioners.

The commissioners’ concerns come several months after NRC Inspector General Hubert Bell released a report that alleged Jaczko “controls information” provided to the NRC commissioners by designating issues as administrative matters, which he has control over, rather than policy matters.

The report found that Jaczko broke no laws.

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The tension on the commission comes at a key moment for the agency. Commissioners are grappling with how to implement a series of new safety standards recommended by a federal task force earlier this year in the aftermath of the Japanese nuclear disaster.

While Jaczko called for swift review and adoption of the new safety standards, several members of the commission questioned the chairman’s timeline. Ultimately, after additional staff review, the commission agreed to move forward with key recommendations.

Two top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee — Reps. Ed Whitfield (Ky.) and John Shimkus (Ill.) — have called on President Obama to fire Jaczko.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and others pressured Jaczko to step down at the hearing Wednesday.

“I think you should resign,” he said. “If you’re going to do the right thing for this country and this commission, you should step down.”

But Issa declined to call for Jaczko’s resignation.