The leadership issues consuming the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission have been played out in front of American lawmakers over two consecutive days but there is no real resolution in sight.
The commission has been at odds for several months over the behaviour of one of its members – the chairman, Gregory Jaczko. The other four commissioners allege he has bullied and intimidated staff, withheld information, treated them and NRC processes with contempt and abused emergency powers during the Fukushima crisis.
Three of the five commissioners were appointed by US President Barack Obama, and two by his predecessor President George Bush. But aside from any political or personal issues, the withholding of any information from the commissioners would violate the 1980 Reorganisation Plan that established the NRC in its current ‘strong chairman’ form.
The commissioners say that the gradual establishment of a ‘chilled’ working environment runs contrary to basic principles of nuclear safety culture that are fundamental to safe and successful use of nuclear energy. One commissioner said the behaviour “would be subject to investigation and potential enforcement action” if found to occur in the management of a nuclear power plant.
This week the issues have been discussed at both the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
With a range of political views on offer, the complaining commissioners have been accused of lacking the ‘passion’ for nuclear safety that Jazcko shows, acting in the interests of industry or pursuing a ‘witch-hunt’. The hearings have been called ‘marriage counselling’ and likened to a children’s squabble in which it is embarrassing for lawmakers to intervene. Nevertheless, Jaczko was unable to effectively refute the charges and the commissioners calmly contradicted their equally composed chairman throughout.
As with the power of appointment, the power to dismiss a commissioner or pick a new chairman lies with the President, but Obama has not yet spoken publicly on the subject. Another suggestion is to appoint an independent and trusted mediator for the commission.
Meanwhile, a critic of Jaczko, Congressman Lee Terry, has sponsored a bill intended to reduce the powers of the NRC chairman in emergency situations, while increasing the transparency of staff appointments, budgets and travel.