WASHINGTON -- A GOP nominee to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission "lied to Congress" and "disqualified herself" from a second term, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday. Reid's blunt opposition to the Republican pick is part of a longer battle over the direction of the agency that regulates nuclear power -- an aggressive step that has infuriated his counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McConnell accuses Democrats of retaliating against NRC Commissioner Kristine Svinicki for taking part in an organized effort to oust NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko last year.
“Commissioner Svinicki stood up to this guy, who somehow managed to avoid being fired in the wake of all these revelations, in an effort to preserve the integrity of the agency, and to protect the career staffers who were the subject of the chairman’s tactics," said McConnell on the Senate floor Wednesday. "And now, for some mysterious reason, she’s being held up for re-nomination."
On Wednesday afternoon, Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson sought to clear up the mystery. Svinicki, 45, is being shot down, he said, because she lied. "Senator Reid opposes Commissioner Svinicki's re-nomination because she lied to Congress about her past work on Yucca Mountain," Jentleson said. "Furthermore, Commissioner Svinicki has an abysmal record on nuclear safety, demonstrating that she puts the interests of the nuclear industry ahead of the safety of American citizens. Senator Reid has consistently supported qualified Republicans for the commission and is open to supporting others, but Commissioner Svinicki has disqualified herself and does not deserve to be re-nominated."
Nominations to agencies such as the NRC are typically made in pairs, with Democrats selecting one and Republicans the other. The party that controls the White House then picks the chair. Svinicki is the GOP nominee, and Republicans are slamming Reid for usurping their prerogative. Jentleson, though, noted that there is precedent for Reid's move to block the pick. A McConnell spokesman said that the White House had not expressed reservations about Svinicki.
White House spokesman Clark Stevens didn't address Svinicki directly on Wednesday evening. "The administration agrees that we need a strong NRC, and that will continue to be a priority," Stevens said. "Whenever a nomination is made, it should be considered expeditiously to make sure there is no break in June."
But by Thursday morning, the White House was defying Reid. Reuters reported that Obama will renominate Svinicki despite the majority leader's objection, setting up an intra-party battle over Reid's signature issue, Yucca Mountain. A White House aide confirmed that Obama will indeed renominate Svinicki.
Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for the GOP side of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said, "Given that this is an issue that has been brought before the EPW Committee before and there's been no reaction since, if Senator Reid is going to raise that allegation, we should go through that process again so she has a chance to respond."
The "lie" in question has to do with Yucca Mountain. Reid has dedicated his Senate career to making sure the Nevada site does not become a depository of nuclear waste. "He just protects Nevada on that issue like a mother tiger protecting cubs," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told HuffPost. "It’s just been his signature issue."
Reid's battle with Svinicki, a nuclear engineer, goes back decades. During the '90s, she worked on Yucca policy at the Department of Energy while Reid was a committee chairman opposing it. She later went to work for Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), where she handled Yucca policy and, say Reid staffers involved with the issue at the time, regularly tussled with Reid's staff, including Jaczko, who was then a Reid aide.
At Svinicki's first Senate confirmation hearing in 2008, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) asked Svinicki if, during her time at the Energy Department, Svinicki worked on Yucca Mountain.
Svinicki gave a drawn-out answer, which Boxer interrupted to ask: "So you didn't work directly on Yucca?"
"I did not, no," Svinicki responded.
Subsequently released administration emails and documents showed that Svinicki was very much involved with Yucca while at the Energy Department.
In 2011, Boxer confronted her at another hearing. (Because the details and specific wording of the exchange are critical to the question of her honesty, here are the full quotes.)
"Ms. Svinicki, you testified at your confirmation hearing, when I asked you a series of questions about Yucca, and I sent it up and said, 'So you didn't work directly on Yucca,' and you said, 'I did not, no.' N-O," Boxer said. "Now there is a report out in the media that says as a DOE employee you co-authored a technical report entitled Acceptance of Waste for Disposal and the Potential United States Repository at Yucca."
"You asked me to characterize my work at DOE, and my answer indicated that I had worked obviously in the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, which was well known and was on my resume," Svinicki responded. "And I indicated to you that I did not work on the Yucca Mountain license application. I worked on DOE waste inventories and transportation of materials in that program. And I drew that distinction in my testimony. I do not agree that the document that I believe you are referring to is accurate about stating that the reports I worked on were underlying the Yucca Mountain licensing application. I don't agree that that is accurate."
"OK, that is fair," said Boxer. "I would just like to say, when I summed up and said, so you didn't work directly on Yucca, I didn't mean you were in the mountain taking tests on it. I meant, were you working in the whole subject. And you were. So I would just say to you, this is troubling to me, I will leave it. I will leave it at that. I will leave it at that."
Whether Svinicki lied depends, then, on the earlier exchange. In fact, it was Boxer who mentioned her work at the Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Office in asking her question. The exchange in full:
Boxer: I understand you have worked in the Department of Energy's Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Office. Did you work on transportation and waste disposal issues related to Yucca Mountain?
Svinicki: Senator, thank you for that question. I know that I want to be as clear as I can with the committee. When I worked at the Department of Energy I was employed in what is called the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. That is the office established under law to administer and develop the geologic repository. My work was not in Las Vegas on the Yucca Mountain license application, it was here at the Department of Energy headquarters.
On transportation packaging, as you had mentioned, and you mentioned in your opening comments as well, the safe transportation of these materials is so important. Whether a geologic repository opens or not, we have to transport materials this week and every week very, very safely. And I also worked on inventories of defense materials that may require deep geologic disposal. Those would be materials at Department of Energy sites that currently exist--
Boxer: So you didn't work directly on Yucca?
Svinicki: I did not, no.
Senate Republican aides noted that Boxer deemed Svinick's answer "fair," before going on to say she was troubled. Democratic aides, meanwhile, argued that the line was a throwaway and that the fact she brought it up four years later shows how angry she was.
Boxer's office referred questions to the Environment and Public Works Committee. "Senator Boxer said that she could never support anyone who has misled her, as Ms. Svinicki did at her confirmation hearing in April 2007," said committee aide in an emailed statement. "Senator Boxer told Ms. Svinicki that she was troubled by Ms. Svinicki’s assertion before the Environment and Public Works Committee that she didn’t work directly on Yucca Mountain, which she clearly did. Ms. Svinicki even co-authored a report entitled 'Acceptance of Waste for Disposal in the Potential United States Repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.'"
But, added the aide, there are other issues at play. "In addition, Senator Boxer believes that in this post-Fukushima-era, Ms. Svinicki should be replaced by someone who has demonstrated a clear commitment to safety first," she said.
This story has been updated to include comment from Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for the GOP side of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and reports that the Obama administration will renominate Svinicki.