Critics Question Competency Of Inspector General's Office At Nuclear Regulatory Commission
George Mulley, a retired investigator with the Office of the Inspector General at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, leans across a footstool in his suburban Virginia home and pores over a draft of the last investigation he conducted before he officially retiring in 2009.
A copy of a different and final report -- which the OIG cobbled together from his draft last year -- lies next to it.
"This is a total whitewash," Mulley says. "They've taken out anything that implicates anyone at the NRC."
Mulley had probed a potentially dangerous pipe leak that forced the shutdown of the Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois in 2007 -- and more importantly, the failure of NRC inspectors to adequately monitor the plant's operations and prevent the incident from happening in the first place. The investigation capped Mulley's highly-decorated, 25-year career with the inspector general's division, an independent office inside NRC charged with keeping the regulator honest and focused on its work.
Since its formation inside the NRC in 1989, the OIG has fielded thousands of whistleblower complaints and conducted a compelling list of investigations, many exposing abuse and neglect both at the NRC and within the nuclear power industry that led to Congressional investigations and subsequent agency reform. The OIG became legendary for preparing exhaustively detailed, and publicly available, reports of its investigations.
Now, Mulley -- along with numerous freelance and non-profit nuclear safety advocates who for years relied on the IG's office as a vital backstop against lax nuclear oversight at the NRC -- all say that the IG's office appears to be broken.
"This is not the same office that I worked for," Mulley says, anxiously fingering the two different Byron reports. "It's like they're afraid to take on the NRC's oversight of nuclear power, but that's exactly what they're supposed to be doing."
At a time when the safety of the nation's nuclear power industry has come under intense scrutiny -- particularly following what investigators now say was a preventable meltdown at a Japanese nuclear facility hobbled by an earthquake and flood this spring -- the absence of a robust inspector general, say nuclear-safety advocates with organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace and the Project on Government Oversight, leaves the public more vulnerable to nuclear accidents.
Some of these critics also say that a weak OIG raises questions about the reliability of other investigations beyond Byron, including its most recent investigation of the NRC's chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, whose decision to shut down the agency's review of a long-debated nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was deemed illegal by critics. The OIG's 7-month investigation questioned Jaczko's sometimes imperious management style, but it didn't find that he acted illegally, a conclusion that Republicans heavily criticized during a June hearing on the investigation.
Clifford & Garde, a Washington law firm that represents, or has been contacted by, several current and former OIG employees, including Mulley, has laid out these concerns in letters sent over the last several weeks to the chairman of the NRC, members of Congress and various Congressional investigators.
Among other things, the letters assert that the OIG has "muddled its mission and is squandering its resources." The letters contend that the office has all but abandoned its long-standing role as an in-house watchdog that keeps NRC's oversight of the nuclear power industry honest, independent and aggressive.
Today, these critics charge, the OIG avoids deep investigations of NRC activity and busies itself instead with minor issues like employee misconduct, issues outside its purview like chasing cyberspace threats and petty personnel issues like auditing employee credit card purchases and expense accounts. Interviews with current and former employees of the OIG also suggest low levels of morale inside the office, which one recently departed investigator, who has requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his current job, describes as being primarily concerned with "penny-ante investigations."
One recent investigation, according to another former OIG agent who also has requested anonymity because he fears it would inhibit his ability to work in government, had an OIG investigator tracking an NRC employee's use of a government credit card to attend cat shows. Another had agents investigating a contractor who accidentally spilled diesel fuel on the roof of NRC's headquarters in Rockville, Md.
More critically, one of the Clifford & Garde letters describes the two versions of the report on the Byron incident -- Mulley's and the OIG's abbreviated final version, which the agency never publicly released and which was only obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request -- as evidence of a "dangerous, clumsy and glib rewrite of an important piece of the public's business."
Chief among the omissions from the OIG's final report: that NRC staff had known since at least 1990 that the pipes in question inside the Byron nuclear power plant had been corroding, but had consistently failed to take steps to force the plant operator to correct the issue until the pipes ultimately sprung a leak.
"When it was credible, the OIG's office played a significant role in keeping the agency itself on the straight and narrow, because they really did do significant investigations of internal wrongdoing," says Billie P. Garde, the author of the letters to Congress and a founder of the firm that bears her name, which specializes in whistleblower cases. "I didn't agree with everything they did, I didn't agree with all of their decisions," she says, "but they were a factor and a force which was serving the role that IG's are supposed to serve."
That's no longer the case, Garde says. "The office right now is completely dysfunctional. It's not doing what it should be doing."
Several advocates and former employees suggested that the IG's chief, Hubert T. Bell, has simply served too long, and that he has allowed the office to deteriorate in his dotage. Others suggested that Bell's Assistant Inspector General for Investigations, Joseph A. McMillan, who joined the office from the Department of Defense in late 2006 and who was personally trained in the job by Mulley, had become a capricious presence in the office, sowing resentment by favoring some staff over others.
Many of those interviewed for this article suggest that the loss of Mulley himself precipitated the OIG's decline.
Bell, who has served as the NRC's inspector general since 1995, declined repeated requests for an interview, but McMillan, who heads up the investigative arm of the OIG, has offered a vigorous defense of his agency, suggesting that much of the criticism arises from stakeholders who refuse to accept that Mulley is gone and that new personalities -- and new priorities -- are a part of the natural maturation process at any agency.
"I won't speak to or read into other people's mindsets as to why they may agree or disagree with the new kid on the block," McMillan says in an interview at NRC headquarters. "What I will say is that this office, and the IG, have a high degree of confidence in the staff."
He also says that given the hundreds of tips and allegations that continue to come into his office through various avenues, including through online and telephone hotlines, any suggestion that the general public, employees at nuclear power plants -- or even NRC staff -- are reluctant to blow a whistle with his office is demonstrably false.
"I can't accept the fact of these individuals saying they don't feel comfortable," McMillan says. "Those individuals may not feel comfortable, but clearly other people feel confident enough to refer matters to this office and to ensure that they were properly investigated."
McMillan says he will not discuss the Bryon investigation in detail, adding that allegations regarding edits made to the report had been referred by his office to the Integrity Committee of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, an umbrella group that polices inspectors general offices throughout the federal government.
A spokesman for the Integrity Committee's current director, Kevin L. Perkins, who is an assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division at the F.B.I., says: "It has long been the policy to not comment on matters before the Integrity Committee nor do we confirm whether they are looking at any particular IG."
Eliot Brenner, a spokesman for Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Jaczko, says his office has received one of the letters from Garde and that a response was being prepared. He declined to comment further.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a long-time crusader for nuclear safety who was pivotal in the creation of the OIG at the NRC, says there is some cause for concern.
"I believe that Inspectors General serve a very important function, which is why I pressed for the creation of an NRC inspector general many years ago," Markey, who received a copy of one of Garde's letters from a reporter, notes in an email. "While the NRC's IG has done valuable and important work, this letter does raise some issues about the current operation of the office which, if true, would warrant further examination."