Contentious hearing leaves more questions about NRC leadership

Thursday - 12/15/2011, 5:16am EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers Wednesday that he would not resign, despite charges that he has bullied and intimidated staff and other commissioners.

"I have no plans to resign because I continue to believe that under my leadership, the agency has performed well," Jaczko said during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Wednesday. "We have committed ourselves to safety and I believe my record shows that."

He sat in the middle of the four other members of the NRC, who sent a letter to the White House in October accusing Jaczko of creating "a high level of fear and anxiety and a chilled work environment." Commissioner William Magwood told lawmakers he had spoken to three female staff members who had endured Jaczko's verbal assaults. One of them had been "brought to tears," he said.

But the "senior staff has managed to keep the agency focused," he said. "I believe the agency is focusing, at the bottom line, on protecting health and safety as well as it ever has. That doesn't mean it's been easy."

Jaczko denied he has bullied employees, although he conceded he did have a heated conversation with a senior NRC manager about the agency's response to the nuclear crisis in Japan last spring. "I have not bullied employees," Jaczko said.

Jaczko conceded he has had heated conversations with fellow commissioners, but denied he was trying to intimidate or bully anyone, as all four commissioners have alleged. Numerous NRC staffers also have complained that Jaczko's style has made them uncomfortable.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko (AP)

Jaczko said he was "a very passionate person about safety," he said. "I often engaged my colleagues in discussions about safety and that's been my style."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said Jaczko should resign.

"You're telling me they are all wrong and you are right," he told Jaczko. "That to me is a lack of leadership."

GOP leaders of the House committee on Science, Space and Technology also have called for Jaczko's ouster.

In their Oct. 13 letter to White House Chief of Staff William Daley, the four NRC commissioners said they had "grave concerns" about Jaczko and said his bullying style is creating a "chilled work environment at the NRC."

The letter stopped short of calling for the chairman to resign, but said Jaczko's actions could adversely affect the agency's mission to protect health and safety at the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors.

Among other claims, the letter says Jaczko "intimidated and bullied" senior career staff, ordered staff to withhold information and ignored the will of the panel's majority. Commission members Democrats William Magwood and George Apostolakis, and Republicans Ostendorff and Kristine Svinicki signed the letter.

Jaczko, in a detailed response also sent to the White House, said problems at the agency were not his fault but instead stem from "lack of understanding" on the part of the other four commissioners. Daley said this week that the dispute has not impaired the panel's work or jeopardized safety at the nation's nuclear power plants.

Daley said problems stem from the commission's "strong chairman" structure, in which the leader of the five-member panel has far greater powers than the remaining four commissioners.

In a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Daley downplayed tension at the NRC and said commissioners have agreed to meet with a "trusted third party" to promote a better dialogue.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) (AP)

On Tuesday, Issa released a scathing report that said Jaczko has a "my way or the highway" style and routinely oversteps his authority and undermines and intimidates his colleagues.

"The NRC has survived thus far, but the cracks are forming and all symptoms point to catastrophe," the report said.

The commissioners said their letter against Jaczko was not politically motivated, as some lawmakers have said.

But Democrats on the oversight panel and outside watchdog groups cautioned that the complaints should be taken in the context of a struggling nuclear industry.

The Project on Government Oversight released a written statement calling Jaczko "a public servant who takes his job regulating the nuclear industry seriously" and noting that such an approach was expected, especially in light of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

The watchdog group called Magwood "a proven industry advocate who was loathe to uphold safety or security requirements."

Democrats on the oversight panel released their own report Tuesday saying that extensive interviews with commission members and staff "uncovered no violations of law or instances in which the safety of U.S. nuclear facilities has been placed in jeopardy."

The Democrats said their investigation "has revealed a tense and challenging work environment, however, that appears to have been caused primarily by fundamental disagreements about the statutory structure of the NRC and significant policy disputes among its commissioners."

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told the commissioners that they had created a media circus and should get back to work.

"I beg you, for the sake of the American people, sit down and work this thing out," he said.

He noted the irony in a Congressperson telling others how they should come to agreement.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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