Sen. Boxer defends nuke chief Jaczko

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Thursday aggressively defended the country’s top nuclear power regulator against attacks from his colleagues.

“We should be focusing on the work that you have to do, not petty politics and personal ambition,” Boxer said during a hearing Thursday that featured testimony from the five commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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Four of the commissioners — two Democrats and two Republicans — launched an open revolt this week against NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, arguing his behavior is causing “serious damage” that could prevent the agency from protecting public health and safety. They accused Jaczko of overstepping his authority, verbally abusing staff and withholding key information from colleagues.

Democrats have launched a full-court press in recent days to defend Jaczko, who was nominated to the commission by President George W. Bush in 2005 and designated as chairman by President Obama in 2009.

On Thursday, Boxer dismissed the commissioners’ concerns about his leadership.


“Frankly, I was shocked and appalled,” Boxer said of a Wednesday House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in which the commissioners openly criticized Jaczko, a Democrat.

Boxer, echoing comments of other Democrats in Congress, called efforts by the commission to raise questions about Jaczko’s leadership a “witch hunt.”

She, like other Democrats, suggested that the commissioners are revolting against Jaczko’s leadership because they disagree with his policy priorities.

Boxer blasted the commissioners for taking issue with Jaczko’s call to quickly implement a series of safety standards recommended by a federal task force earlier this year in the aftermath of the March disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

While all of the commissioners have said they agree that reforms are needed, they initially questioned Jaczko’s timeline, arguing that the recommendations needed further review from staff.

“Instead of taking action, every commissioner except Chairman Jaczko focused on delay in the form of a re-review,” Boxer said. “So here we are on Dec. 15, and not any one of those safety recommendations have been acted upon. It’s simply inexcusable.”

Boxer also took aim at allegations by Commissioner William Magwood, a Democrat, that Jaczko had been verbally abusive to female staff at the NRC.

In his testimony Wednesday during the House hearing, Magwood cited conversations with three female NRC employees whom he said had 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.

“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, declining to identify the women.

But Boxer said her staff had also spoken to women at the NRC who defended Jaczko.

“They found the opposite, in fact that the chairman, according to one respected female staffer, was ‘the most fair person she’d ever met,’ ” Boxer said, adding that one woman told her staff, “What I am floored by is the conduct of the other commissioners.”

Other Democrats have come to Jaczko's defense.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) defended Jaczko, his former aide, on Tuesday, and blasted the NRC commissioners.

“[Jaczko’s] No. 1 concern during the entire time he’s been at the NRC is nuclear safety,” Reid told reporters in the Capitol. “I’m sorry to say a number of the people who work with him at the commission are not concerned about safety at all. They are concerned about the nuclear industry.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Edward Markey (Mass.), a senior Democrat and longtime critic of nuclear power, issued a report last week that blames the other four NRC commissioners for stymieing NRC efforts to boost safety after the disaster in Japan. Jaczko is a former aide to Markey.

Thursday’s hearing comes about a week after House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released a mid-October letter from the commissioners to the White House blasting Jaczko’s behavior.

The White House responded this week that NRC infighting does not threaten safety.

But Republicans have pounced on the commissioners’ concerns, with some even calling for Jaczko’s ouster. Jaczko said Wednesday that he has no plans to resign.

“I’m just blown away by the numerous reports of Chairman Jaczko’s intimidation and retaliation against senior agency staff and attempts to fundamentally undermine the collegial atmosphere on the commission,” Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on Boxer’s committee, said Thursday.

Inhofe and other Republicans accused Democrats of retaliating against the other four commissioners for criticizing Jaczko.