12.14.11

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko's Controversial Reign

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman has rubbed his colleagues the wrong way with his power-grabbing style—and now faces questions in Congress about whether he’s suited for the job as America’s nuclear safety chief. Will a belated apology and some White House backing help?

The letter wasn’t, at first, meant to be public. Early in October, four of the five commissioners on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wrote the White House to complain that Chairman Gregory Jaczko was causing “serious damage” to America’s nuclear safety agency and “a chilled work environment” with his abrasive style.

Their plea was simple: the commission needs an adult to arbitrate an increasingly toxic environment inside the agency charged with safeguarding America’s nuclear power plants.

Two months went by before the letter leaked to reporters, exposing a stunning leadership struggle atop the commission. In response, Jaczko fired off his own letter, defending his management style and insisting the problems weren’t his fault. White House chief of staff Bill Daley was forced to intervene, holding individual meetings with all parties. By early December, the message on behalf of President Obama was clear: work it out among yourselves.

But Congress didn’t want to be left out. On Wednesday, the dispute will be laid bare as Jaczko and his colleagues testify before a Republican-led House committee certain to stoke the controversy further.

Although he has been NRC chairman since 2009, Jaczko has yet to win the acceptance of his colleagues or the nuclear power industry. He has a degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin and several years of policy experience as an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but a lack of industry experience has occasionally irked colleagues.

The reason for Reid’s loyalty to Jaczko exposes another factor in the division on the current commission. Yucca Mountain, the nuclear waste repository site that was abruptly canceled under Obama, is in Reid’s home state of Nevada. While working for Reid, Jaczko publicly opposed Yucca for what many lawmakers, including Rep. Ed Markey, saw as “not in my back yard,” or NIMBY, grounds. The United States needs a repository site for dangerous nuclear byproducts, Reid has said, but Nevada isn’t the best place for it. Jaczko has agreed and has dropped a $13 billion review of the Yucca site.

Scores of nuclear scientists, engineers, and geologists have objected to the decision, as have the rest of Jaczko’s fellow commissioners. As the U.S. produces more and more spent fuel that remains radioactive for up to 10,000 years, they argue the government should have a place by now to store it that is safe and geologically secure. The American Nuclear Society, the leading group of nuclear scientists and professionals, even pleaded with Jaczko earlier this year to continue the review of Yucca, arguing that it still deserves honest consideration.

While commissioners waited for the chairman to arrive, they were stunned to overhear him yelling at the top of his lungs at a receptionist for a clerical mistake.

That contentious decision, coupled with Jaczko’s temperament, has created a perfect storm inside the agency, according to those familiar with the ongoing feud.

Those sources recounted to The Daily Beast an incident at a recent NRC meeting in which Jaczko’s fellow commissioners, waiting for him to arrive, could overhear him yelling at the top of his lungs at a receptionist for a clerical mistake. Embarrassed the tirade could be heard from within earshot of a public meeting, one commissioner went to shut the door. But Jaczko got their first, slamming the door himself in anger.

A report from the commission’s inspector general recounted several similar claims that Jaczko has been quick to blow up at employees. An NRC spokesman did not deny the incidents, saying instead that the chairman is simply passionate about issues, especially nuclear safety. Jaczko is expected to address the concerns in his congressional testimony Wednesday by insisting the NRC remains a great place to work and suggesting some of the squabbling has to do with commissioners’ misunderstanding their roles and authority.

Internal squabbling can likely be sorted out, but nuclear professionals see broader ripples over the drama playing out. “The problem is that when you create a hostile work environment, it ultimately affects safety,” says Paul Dickman, a former chief of staff to NRC chairman Dale Klein. “It’s one of the key indicators of a program in trouble when you lose your safety-consciousness work environment. When you have bad morale, you have bad performance.”

At Wednesday’s hearings, oversight lawmakers in both chambers have promised to grill Jaczko and the other commissioners about the bickering. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has said he’s concerned how the personality split will affect the commission’s performance, as well as the public’s safety.

After the public trial there are several ways industry watchers expect things to end. Obama or Congress could demote or impeach Jaczko within the next year; either move would be highly unprecedented. Instead, the administration may wait until the flap blows over and appoint a new official in Jaczko’s stead when his term expires in June 2013.

Tension at the commission, meanwhile,  appears likely to endure. While Jaczko prepared for his Wednesday testimony, the commission on Tuesday afternoon hosted its annual holiday party. The mood, one employee said, was collegial, given the fallout in public.