Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dispute Over Nuclear Regulatory Commission Leadership Gets Serious

Dec 13: On October 13, the four of the five Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Commissioners -- Kristine Svinicki, George Apostolakis, William Magwood IV and William Ostendorff -- sent a letter to the White House about Chairman Gregory Jaczko's behavior. In their letter, the Commissioners said, "We believe that Chairman Jaczko's actions and behavior area causing serious damage to this institution and are creating a chilled work environment at the NRC. We are concerned that this will adversely affect the NRC's essential mission to protect the health, safety and security of the American people." Svinicki and Ostendorff are Republicans and the other three Commissioners, including Jaczko, are Democrats. Jaczko is a former aide for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
    On December 9, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) released his letter to White House Chief of Staff William Daley and the letter from the NRC Commissioners. Chairman Issa requested someone from the White House to testify at the Committee hearing scheduled for Wednesday, December 14, entitled, "The Leadership of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission." Today, apparently the White House refused to testify and Chairman Issa said, "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."
    Yesterday, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), president and chief executive officer, Marvin Fertel issued a statement regarding the situation with the NRC and said, "Safe performance of nuclear energy facilities and the NRC's credibility are the two most important factors for policymaker and public confidence in nuclear energy. As such, the industry is concerned with anything that threatens the credibility of either. We are confident that Congress and the White House will take the steps necessary to ensure that the NRC is an efficient, effective regulator that provides oversight of commercial nuclear technology.

    "The issue that is of most concern is the question of a chilled working environment at the agency, including the possibility of staff intimidation and harassment, at a time when the senior management and staff are working on critical licensing activities and post-Fukushima safety recommendations. The industry takes safety culture issues seriously and we expect the same priority treatment of these issues by our regulator. The NRC functions best when it has a full complement of five capable commissioners to provide guidance and direction to the NRC staff. Safety is maximized when NRC and industry resources are focused on those matters that are most important to safety. It is important that the dynamics that exist within the commission be resolved professionally and expeditiously so that the important work of the agency can continue without interruption or distraction. The American people expect and deserve nothing less.

    "The industry's commitment to nuclear power plant safety is unwavering and we will not be distracted from this mission by events at the NRC. Of the top 20 performing plants in the world, 16 of them are American reactors. The industry exceeds federal safety standards and it is critical that our entire industry keep a sharp focus on safety. Furthermore, the industry is taking steps to make safe nuclear energy facilities even safer by applying the lessons learned from the accident in Japan at America's nuclear power plants."

    In addition to the December 14, hearing, all five of NRC commissioners are scheduled to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee on Thursday, December 15, for a hearing to review the Commission's actions related to the Task Force recommendations following the nuclear emergency in Japan. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the EPW issued a statement saying, "Instead of applauding the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for his swift and effective response to Fukushima, his fellow commissioners are attacking him. We must move away from the 'do nothing' culture of the NRC and support Chairman Jaczko as he translates the lessons of Fukushima into an action plan that will make America's nuclear plants the safest in the world."
    EPW Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK), issued a statement saying, "As Ranking Member of the committee of jurisdiction over the NRC, I am aware of the Commissioners' letter and taking their concerns very seriously. I commend the Commissioners for having the courage to raise these important issues, and I look forward to hearing from them when they testify before the Environment and Public Works Committee next week."  
    On December 10, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called on President Obama to address concerns raised by members of the NRC about the actions and management style of Chairman Jaczko. She said, "I have serious concerns about the ability of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to protect the safety of the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors under the divisive leadership of Chairman Jaczko. 
    "There have been signs for some time that the chairman's politicalization of matters crucial to the nation's energy security was disrupting the vital work of the commission, including resolving the issue of the permanent disposal of the nations' spent nuclear fuel and responding to safety concerns raised by the Fukishima accident. Now, reports have surfaced that Chairman Jaczko intimidated senior agency staff and ordered them to withhold information from other members of the commission and from Congress. If true, these actions represent a serious breach of the public's trust. Such behavior is unacceptable at any level of government and a response from the president is long overdue. The president needs to immediately address the concerns raised by the four commissioners if he wants members of Congress and the public to have faith in the agency."
    On December 9, Representative Ed Markey (D-MA), released a blockbuster new report -- Regulatory Meltdown: How Four Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners Conspired to Delay and Weaken Nuclear Reactor Safety in the Wake of Fukushima -- that he says details how the four Commissioners on the NRC "colluded to prevent and then delay the work of the NRC Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima." The Task Force was the entity tasked with making recommendations for improvement to NRC regulations and processes after the Fukushima meltdowns, the worst nuclear disaster in history. Representative Markey indicated in a release that, "The Near-Term Task Force members comprise more than 135 years of collective experience at the NRC, and with full access to expert NRC staff completed a methodical and comprehensive review of NRC's regulatory system."
    According to the release Markey's office reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including emails, correspondence, meeting minutes and voting records, and found "a concerted effort by Commissioners William Magwood, Kristine Svinicki, William Ostendorff and George Apostolakis to undermine the efforts of the Fukushima Task Force with request for endless additional study in an effort to delay the release and implementation of the task force's final recommendations. Documents also show open hostility on the part of the four Commissioners toward efforts of NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko to fully and quickly implement the recommendations of the Task Force, despite efforts on the part of the Chairman to keep the other four NRC Commissioners fully informed regarding the Japanese emergency."
    Representative Markey said, "The actions of these four Commissioners since the Fukushima nuclear disaster has caused a regulatory meltdown that has left America's nuclear fleet and the general public at risk. Instead of doing what they have been sworn to do, these four Commissioners have attempted a coup on the Chairman and have abdicated their responsibility to the American public to assure the safety of America's nuclear industry. I call on these four Commissioners to stop the obstruction, do their jobs and quickly move to fully implement the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster."
    Access a release from Rep. Issa on the hearing and investigation (click here). Access the December 9 letter to the White House and the October 13 letter from the NRC Commissioners (click here). Access the response from Rep. Issa (click here). Access the statement from NEI (click here). Access the statement from Senator Boxer (click here). Access the statement from Senator Inhofe (click here). Access the statement from Senator Murkowski (click here). Access a lengthy release from Rep. Markey with links to additional information and video (click here). Access the complete 45-page Markey investigation report (click here). [#Energy/Nuclear]