WASHINGTON — A dispute among members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, while increasingly bitter, has not impaired the panel's work or jeopardized safety at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors, according to a top White House official.
But a senior House Republican said the leadership crisis at the NRC could lead to "catastrophe."
William Daley, the president's chief of staff, 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 the Republican chairman of a House oversight panel, Daley downplayed tension at the NRC and said commissioners have agreed to meet with a "trusted third party" to promote a better dialogue.
"While there are tensions and disagreements among the commissioners, these management differences have not impaired the commission's ability to fulfill its mission," Daley said in a letter late Monday to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Daley's letter did not put the matter to rest. Within hours, Issa released a scathing report that said NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, with a "my way or the highway" style, 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 oversight committee is scheduled to hear from all five NRC commissioners at a hearing on Wednesday.
In a preview of the partisanship expected at the hearing, 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."
Daley, in his letter, said he and a White House lawyer met independently with each of the commissioners after four NRC commissioners sent him an Oct. 13 letter complaining about Jaczko. Daley declined Issa's invitation to send a White House representative to Wednesday's House hearing. Another meeting is scheduled Thursday in the Senate.
In their letter, the four NRC commissioners said they had "grave concerns" about Jaczko and that his bullying style is creating a "chilled work environment at the NRC."
The letter stops short of calling for the chairman to resign, but says 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. The letter was signed by Democrats William Magwood and George Apostolakis, as well as Republicans Kristine Svinicki and William Ostendorff.
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 Jaczko has "apologized for the distraction caused by the present tensions" and has vowed to improve communications with his fellow commissioners.
Issa said he was disappointed at Daley's response.
"With four bipartisan commissioners raising deeply troubling concerns about abuse and mismanagement at the NRC, it's hard to reach any other conclusion than the White House is in denial about the severity of the situation at the NRC," Issa said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defended Jaczko, a former Reid aide, after the commissioners' letter became public late last week. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, called criticism of Jaczko "a politically motivated witch hunt," even though two of the four NRC commissioners who complained about Jaczko are Democrats.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., said Saturday that Jaczko should be fired.
The dispute comes after an inspector general's report released in June exposed internal strife under Jaczko. The IG report cited numerous complaints from staffers and fellow commissioners about Jaczko's "intimidating" style and said Jaczko had withheld information and manipulated commissioners to gain their support.
Most of the criticism of Jaczko centers on his response to the Japan nuclear crisis this spring and his efforts to stop a review of a proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Reid strongly opposes Yucca Mountain, and GOP lawmakers say Jaczko's actions to shut down the Yucca review are aligned with the wishes of his former boss.
In August, Republican senators asked the inspector general to investigate whether Jaczko had authority to declare the Japan nuclear crisis an emergency — which grants him additional powers — because the crisis occurred on foreign soil.
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