Friday, December 9, 2011

Bad blood boils over at the NRC

Four commissioners write to the House Oversight Committee blaming Chairman Gregory Jaczko about a toxic atmosphere

Next Wednesday December 14 the House Oversight Committee will hold a very unusual hearing in which four NRC Commissioners will air their complaints about NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

All four are so unhappy with the way Jaczko does business at the NRC that they signed a letter October 13 to White House Chief of Staff William Daley detailing how badly things are going at the agency.

Current circumstances have the appearance of the heat and smoke of lava flowing down the side of a Hawaiian volcano and setting off clouds of steam as it flows into the ocean.

Not to be deterred, Jaczko sent a rebuttal on Dec 7 claiming that his colleagues at the agency are soft on safety and that he is the only thing standing between a complacent nuclear industry and an accident waiting to happen.  Rep Ed Markey (D-Mass) issued a fiery press release late Friday night charging that there is a conspiracy to undercut nuclear safety at the NRC.

The Associated Press has detailed coverage of the back-and-forth in the letters. The New York Times has additional coverage.

Last June Jaczko was the subject of a harsh investigative report by the NRC Inspector General. While the IG found no laws had been broken, it was critical of Jaczko's management style. It appears that since then things have simply gotten much worse.  In a webinar I conducted with Jaczko last October, he was unapologetic about his management style.

Lid comes off on White House correspondence

All of the letters have been kept under wraps by the White House. President Obama has no apparent interest in annoying Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who wants to keep Jaczko in place to continue to bottle up the Yucca Mountain license from ever seeing the light of day.

The House Oversight Committee wants some answers, but even if they get a he said, she said type hearing, at the end of the day, the 'so what' question is whether the four NRC commissioners stuck their heads out for nothing.

Washington is consumed with political battles over a failing economy and Congress, with the failure of the budget Super committee, has set off a mad scramble to prevent "deus ex machina" type legislation from wrecking what's left of the federal budget.

Who's going to pay attention to a dust up at a federal regulatory agency where no one speaks plain English? Yes, preventing a Fukushima type accident in the U.S. is important, but is this dispute going to stand in the way of the NRC's mission? The four commissioners think it will, but Jaczko has some high cards in his hand and will play them for all they are worth.

What the House Committee will cover

Rep. Darrel Issa
 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif) said

“We believe that [Chairman Jaczko’s] actions and behavior are 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 protect the health, safety and security of the American people.”

The Oversight Committee’s request to the White House comes after it obtained the October 13 letter from the four NRC commissioners last week in the course of its ongoing investigation into the operations and decision making of the NRC.

“The President has the authority to take action to address these concerns,” Chairman Issa wrote in his letter to Daley.  “The White House has now been aware of the Commissioners concerns for nearly two months, and the public deserves to understand what actions have been taken and whether the President still believes that Chairman Jaczko is capable of leading the NRC.”

The Full Committee hearing entitled “The Leadership of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission” will take place at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, December 14th in 2154 Rayburn House Office Building.  Chairman Gregory Jaczko, Commissioner Kristine Svinicki, Commissioner George Apostolakis, Commissioner William Magwood, and Commissioner William Ostendorff will testify.

Does it matter?

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko
at the White House
From the point of view of the White House, the situation may look like a personality conflict run amok rather than a dispute over how to regulate nuclear power plants.

In the current political environment, Obama may not care what happens at the NRC, or what the other NRC commission members think, so long as he continues to appear to Nevada's voters that he is keeping his promise to stop Yucca Mountain.

That means keeping Jaczko in place no matter no badly he fails to get along with the other commissioners.

Sen. Reid has no interest in allowing a scenario to play out that will force Jaczko to resign thus removing the one fulcrum he has for leverage to keep his promises to Nevada's voters about Yucca Mountain.

The nuclear industry might privately say that Jaczko is a pain in the neck, but he did vote today for certification of the AP1000 reactor design and indicated that combined construction and operating licenses to build four of them are not far behind.  And, Jackzo has ammunition to use to defend his record.
  • He can make the case for a "red" finding at Browns Ferry,
  • The NRC basically saved the Omaha Public Power District from itself earlier this year by insisting it beef up flood control measures at Ft. Calhoun,
  • The short-term recommendations of the NRC's task force issued last July on Fukushima are reasonable and even NEI agrees many can be implemented with little apparent pain.
People who follow the NRC much more closely than this blog tell me that in the world of nuclear safety regulation, having a dysfunctional relationship among the commissioners, especially with four of them lined up against the chairman, is itself a threat to safety. It means they are paying more attention to their disputes than they are to the agency's business.  That's the real "so what" as seen from here.

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Paul Dickman said...


As the former Chief of Staff to Chairman Klein, let me first say that I am very disappointed that the White House has let it come to this. Dr. Jaczko is brilliant, but inexperienced, and neither he nor his close advisers understand the difference between leadership and control. His claim that his long experience on the Commission trumps that of his fellow commissioners rings rather hollow when you look at their distinguished careers as senior managers and leaders. To rationalize that their inexperience on the Commission is an excuse for his behavior towards them is bizarre. Clearly this is not the rationale behavior you would expect of someone heading a major safety organization.

One further note: The prestige of being the "Best Place to Work" in Federal government can be attributed to the EDO and his team. Both former Chairman Klein and Diaz acknowledged that the agency staff look to the EDO, not the Chairman for leadership. It is rather sad that Dr. Jaczko attempts to claim this under his "leadership" skills.

Brian Mays said...

"To rationalize that their inexperience on the Commission is an excuse for his behavior towards them is bizarre. Clearly this is not the rationale behavior you would expect of someone heading a major safety organization."

Paul - Children throw tantrums. It's just a fact of life. This is what you should expect when you appoint an unqualified, inexperienced person to head the NRC.

Thank you for your insights. Your comment explains a lot.

Michele Kearney said...

This discussion would take on added significance if all four commissioners themselves threatened
mass resignation in protest. Absent that, I doubt the White House is going to respond to this.

Bill Mullins said...

What is perhaps difficult to see is how the ideological polarization of federal governance at the Congressional level (e.g. with myopic horse trading such as the Obama Yucca Mountain placation to Harry Reid) is impacting the stability of a system of checks and balances that developed under more stable circumstances.

With the recent evidence from Deepwater Horizon, the ongoing concerns for fracking impacts, and the regulatory free pass given to Massey energy at the coal mine disaster, people will likely have a hard time figuring out what's important.

However, from the letters, reports, and my own observations of the Chairman's speeches and public positions I do not have confidence that he has the big picture as regards American National Energy Security - on that basis I would prefer to see him removed from office and replace as Chairman by someone who understands that the most pertinent stakes are not with radiation dose consequences 1 Million years out.

His instincts that the industry needs a good shake up may be pretty good, but his grasp on how to do that is about as advanced as that of Madame LeFarge!

Bill Mullins

Nancy E Roth said...

Michele: The commissioners would be irresponsible and reckless to threaten a mass resignation, don't you think? Wouldn't that redound to Jazcko's benefit?

The White House is not dumb. They know what is happening is not normal. Don't forget, he was not their original appointee, and considering the genuine technical expertise and leadership of the people they have appointed I wonder if they ever would have put him on the commission. But because he was already there, a gift of the prior administration, promoting him was an easy way to keep Harry Reid in their corner--and a sure ticket to wrap up the YMP.

I think you are right that the White House won't do anything to rock the boat before the 2012 election, having already alienated their antinuke environmental allies. So for the nonce he is safe, although he is becoming a real albatross.

But a year from now I expect him to suddenly discover a need to pursue other interests that require him to step down.

Rod Adams said...

Dan - I hope you are wrong about the political computation because it would indicate that the President needs some training in remedial math. I do not believe that is the case.

Despite the power accumulated within the Senate under their arcane rules of seniority and what I view as rather corrupt campaign finance rules that allows politicians to use donations to buy favors from their colleagues, I seen Reid and Markey as just 2 of 535 who each represent very small portions of the population of the United States of America.

The NRC is the gatekeeper for a technology whose value to the prosperity of the United States is only a shadow of what it could and should be. We are at a time when we have 55 years of experience with safely and effectively operating emission free reactors that consume an abundant fuel that only costs about 65 cents per million BTU of heat. The marginal cost of more power from nuclear plants is virtually zero, they cost as much to own as they do to own and operate.

A chastened Jaczko who survives a sharply worded letter from his four colleagues would be a poison pill that would inhibit the agency from effectively doing it job of enabling the safe use of nuclear materials to support the common defense and protect the environment. He needs to go, not because he is a Democrat (so am I) but because he has demonstrated that he is not a competent manager, leader or nuclear energy technical reviewer. He has had plenty of time to learn to do better, but he has failed to take that opportunity.

In the Navy, CO's get relieved quickly when it is recognized that they have established a climate where people cannot trust their leader. That policy is also well established within the nuclear industry, partially because of the rather strong influence of navy nukes, but also because the implications of a poor command climate are similar. Organizations that do not trust their leaders are destined to fail at some point - usually at the time when there is the most stress being applied.

We cannot allow the NRC to run aground at this key stage in our nation's history. We need all the clean, non oil energy we have already found.

Bill Mullins said...

I'm with Rod; it is a matter of Competence Commensurate with Responsibility - Jazcko lacks the maturity to Chair the NRC Enterprise, and his attempts to "I'm really bright - trust me!" his way through the deficits in his experience are finally becoming evident as the failure they must inevitably be.

If you accept Command and the ship goes aground - particularly with the Commander at the Conn - the Universal Law of the Sea applies - swift and sure accountability is appropriate.

The Gen. McCrystal affair a few years ago in Afghanistan is equally relevant for its lessons to the White House today.

I suspect that Obama is making the Jeremiah Wright mistake again - he wants Jazcko to be successful, but he doesn't yet realize the political price he (and the national energy security) will pay for having a loose cannon Chairman.