Bernie Sanders, Bill Magwood Square Off Over Nuclear Commission Fight

12/15/2011 06:06 pm ET
  • Ryan Grim Washington Bureau Chief, The Huffington Post

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bernie Sanders grilled a nuclear commissioner at a hearing Thursday, demanding to know whether he intended to step into the top job if an effort to oust Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was successful.

The Vermont independent also questioned the witness, Commissioner Bill Magwood, about his ties to the Japanese company that owns the failed Fukushima nuclear facility. In doing so, Sanders read a Huffington Post article into the record. Magwood confirmed that he had consulted for the company, but called reporting on the connection "outrageous." He also refused to rule out replacing Jaczko.

The nuclear commission has been thrown into chaos over the past week as internal political and personal tensions burst out into the open when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released a letter from the four other commissioners condemning the chairman's leadership style. All five testified at the Senate hearing Thursday.

"Senator [John] Barrasso quoted from The New York Times. Let me quote from Huffington Post, one of the larger online news publications in the country," Sanders said. "And this is what The Huffington Post says on Dec. 12, 2011: 'Bill Magwood, the man at the center of an effort to overthrow the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and his most likely successor if the move is successful, served as a consultant for Tepco, the Japanese company that owns the Fukushima nuclear power plant, according to information provided by Magwood as part of his nomination and confirmation process, which was obtained by The Huffington Post.'"

Sanders then read a second section of the article: "When Magwood was nominated by President Obama in 2009 to become a commissioner, nearly a hundred environmental groups, along with the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), urged his defeat in the Senate, arguing that he was too close to the industry to be tasked with regulating it. Since joining the body, Magwood has coordinated with the two Republicans and the other Democrat on the panel to delay and water down new safety reforms pushed by Jaczko, according to the emails made public by [Rep. Ed] Markey. Following the Fukushima disaster, Jaczko has made a major effort to increase safety standards, an effort that is being closely watched by international regulators and nuclear companies across the globe."

Sanders said that he was willing to read the entire report into the record because Barrasso (R-Wyo.) had read other news reports at a similar hearing on Wednesday.

"I'm not comfortable in doing this, but I think after hearing Mr. Barrasso, we've got to ask some questions as well. And that is, Mr. Magwood, this article suggests that if, for whatever reason, Mr. Jaczko was forced from his job, you're ready to take it over. Are you prepared to tell us as a member of the commission that is not the case? That if, for whatever reason, Jaczko left his job, that you would not take the position of chairman at the NRC?"

Magwood dodged the question. "Well, as I presented yesterday when I was asked a question about whether the chairman should be removed, I gave the opinion that my role or my responsibility is to provide truthful information as I saw it. It's not to make personnel decisions. I am not going to make a recommendation or make a comment about what my role would be," he said.

"Well, that's an interesting point because according to The Huffington Post -- I'm not saying it's right or wrong -- according to The Huffington Post, you have been involved in a 'coup' to get rid of Mr. Jaczko. I don't know if that's true or not. According to this publication you may be, if he is gone, in line to become the chairman. I'm asking you a simple question," Sanders said. "Will you tell us that that's not true and that you would not accept the chairmanship if Mr. Jaczko left?"

"Let me first say I don't think my characterization as a coup leader is fair at all," Magwood replied. "I think we worked, we talked a lot about things with the White House. It was a mutual decision among the four of us. I don't think there was a coup leader. Why I've been singled out I can only guess, but let me just say that I'm not even the senior Democrat on the commission. Why people point fingers at me, I have no idea."

"You did not answer my question," Sanders pressed, "and my question was, if Mr. Jaczko, as a result of political pressure, was forced out of his job, will you tell us now as a member of the commission who some suggest -- I'm not suggesting it -- were involved in that action, will you tell us now that no, you're not interested in becoming chairman to replace Mr. Jaczko?"

"I've never expressed much interest in becoming chairman. It's a very time-consuming, very difficult job, and I hadn't exactly come on the commission with that in mind. But I also won't sit here and tell you that if the president asked me to serve a role like that, that I'd turn it down. I'm not going to say that," Magwood responded.

"I find that is a very interesting remark," Sanders said.

Later in the hearing, Barrasso asked Magwood to respond to the contention that he had consulted for Fukushima owner Tepco. Magwood confirmed that he had done so, but said that any implication he was compromised by such a connection was "outrageous."

HuffPost approached Magwood after the hearing and asked him to elaborate on the connection with Fukushima.

"There's nothing in my background that I believe suggests that I can't act as an independent agent. I don't have a special connection with Tepco or other Japanese companies. I did minor things for them, just wrote a couple of reports," he said. "So I thought that was completely overblown. And I don't see myself as a coup leader. It was a mutual decision by four strong-minded people."

CONVERSATIONS