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Nuclear Power Play: Ambition, Betrayal And The 'Ugly Underbelly' Of Energy Regulation


First Posted: 12/29/2011 11:20 am Updated: 12/30/2011 7:28 am

WASHINGTON -- A feud at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where five presidentially appointed commissioners oversee the safety of the nation's nuclear power reactors, has broken out into full public view, with Chairman Gregory Jaczko's fellow commissioners assailing his character and management style, both in a letter made public earlier this month and in the resulting testimony before Congress.

Republicans have begun calling for Jaczko's ouster.

"The situation at the NRC sounds dire," wrote Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) in a letter to President Barack Obama, "leaving me very concerned that the Chairman is unable to lead the Commission in the fulfillment of its responsibilities."

On K Street, energy lobbyists have rallied to support the four other commissioners.

So far, the White House is standing by Jaczko, one of the least industry-friendly leaders to serve at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in a generation.

For Washington's tight nuclear policy circle, where scientifically trained political operatives move back and forth between the industry, the NRC, the Department of Energy and key congressional committees, it's déjà vu. Interviews with several senior officials who worked on nuclear energy policy in the 1990s reveal that at least two of those operatives -- both with strong ties to the nuclear industry -- were closely involved in the ouster of an earlier reformist regulator and are now involved in the current drama.

What's unfolding at the NRC is a textbook example of a little-discussed corporate tactic that is employed against public officials in extreme situations. Observers of the way Washington works tend to describe the corruption of the political system and the people within it in terms of action and reward: Do what industry wants, and benefit both professionally and personally. But when carrots aren't enough, corporations have sticks to swing, too.

Susan McCue, who served as chief of staff for Jaczko's former employer and chief Democratic supporter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), wasn't surprised to see the industry strategy at work.

"They have a lot of power, and they wield it," said McCue. "They can't tell Chairman Jaczko what to do, and I think that frustrates them."

THE FIRST COUP

The Clinton administration's skepticism of nuclear power -- driven in large part by then-Vice President Al Gore -- reached its fullest and earliest expression in 1994 with the installment of Terry Lash at the top of the Department of Energy's nuclear energy program.

Lash was a former staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental group, and his appointment rankled nuclear industry insiders and their Republican supporters on the Hill. It wasn't long, say energy policy staffers involved at the time, before Lash's critics began seeking ways to undermine his position inside the department.

They got their chance after the White House struck a broad agreement with Russia, in which the U.S. would help Russia protect its nuclear stockpile. GOP appropriators had zeroed out funding for the program, and they instructed the administration not to use money set aside for other purposes.

Lash funded the program anyway and failed to keep congressional appropriators fully apprised of his activity. He was promptly called before a House subcommittee and publicly excoriated for his failure to communicate with Congress.

A subsequent investigation by the DOE's inspector general concluded that Lash, while violating procedure, had not broken any laws. But according to multiple sources who recalled the incident, Lash's gaffe was clearly being exploited in the service of a coup. These sources identified two men, Bill Magwood and Alex Flint, as being directly involved in Lash's ultimate downfall.

Magwood was Lash's deputy. He had come to the DOE from the nuclear industry, and he would return to it at subsequent points in his career.

Flint, meanwhile, was a clerk for Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, who steered billions of nuclear research dollars to his home state of New Mexico from his perch as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

Democrats in the Senate and DOE who were involved at the time say that the House only found out about Lash's funding of the Russia program because Magwood, a fellow Democrat, personally alerted Domenici. One source recalled that Magwood went directly to Flint.

"I know that he talked to the Hill," said one former senior Senate Democratic aide who worked directly with Flint and Domenici's office at the time. "Whether he came to the Hill [physically], that's how it was brought to Domenici's attention, was through Magwood."

Lash, realizing too late that he was the likely target of a power play by his own deputy, fought back against Magwood by stripping him of staff. Congressional appropriators then rushed to Magwood's defense.

In an eerie echo of language that would later be used against Chairman Jaczko at the NRC, Rep. Joseph McDade (R-Pa.), who chaired the House subcommittee with nuclear jurisdiction, called Lash's move against Magwood an "unprecedented action which I believe further demonstrates the willingness of the director to treat this office as his personal playground."

In the end, Lash was not fired from the DOE, but was instead moved to a top adviser position within what is now the National Nuclear Security Administration in May 1998 -- evidence that Lash had been the victim of politics rather than guilty of wrongdoing. "The Secretary just felt it was better for Terry to step aside," given the political pressure, said a former DOE official who worked with both Lash and Magwood.

Magwood, meanwhile, took over for Lash as acting director of the Office of Nuclear Energy. When George W. Bush became president in early 2001, he asked for the resignations of top DOE officials. But Magwood had a patron in Domenici, and with the senator's support, according to people involved at the time, Magwood was made permanent director of the program.

The coup was complete.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Magwood denied that he'd orchestrated Lash's overthrow, insisting that he had never spoken to Flint, Domenici or anyone else on the Hill about his former boss. "No, he did it all by himself," Magwood said. "The problem back in the '90s had to do with the allocation of appropriated funds. The House Appropriations Committee was very agitated about that and made a big deal out of that. That's what led to his issues."

Lash's career was effectively over.

"It does change your life," he told HuffPost. "It interferes with personal relationships, the ability to work with others who were not what you would call close, personal friends, but who were acquaintances. You could see in their mind that you have become tainted, and it just makes the whole thing less comfortable, and you never know who's doing what and who believes what at some level."

THE SPOILS

Magwood built a reputation at the Department of Energy as a sharp-elbowed operator. "He was a consummate inside player, a bureaucratic power player of the first order," recalled a former Department of Energy colleague, who, like many others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity because his current work has him interacting regularly with industry clients.

But that level of ambition is hard to contain over a long period of time in a relatively small industry. Every source to whom HuffPost spoke for this story referred to other players, whether friends or foes, by their first names. Magwood never understood it's a small world. "He always struck me as a guy who thought he was playing in a bigger political pond than he was. I mean, there are about 50 people here in town who care about nuclear energy. So it seemed like a lot of politics for no good reason," said one Democratic lobbyist who worked in the Senate while Magwood served in the Department of Energy.

Flint is known as quite the operator as well. "I am telling you this, of all the appropriations clerks, House and Senate, all of them," said a former senior Democratic aide who worked closely with him, "there was nobody as shrewd or full of guile or as politically calculating as Alex Flint. Before you would look at the tables of what you got in terms of earmarks and count 'em up, I kid you not, you'd count your fingers, and you walked out of the room."

Three other former top Democratic Senate aides interviewed for this article who worked closely with Flint described him in similar terms.

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