WASHINGTON — Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Thomas M. Roberts said Thursday that he would temporarily withdraw from any NRC decision-making to avoid being ruled in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions from a Senate subcommittee.
Roberts, under investigation by the Justice Department for allegedly leaking a sensitive NRC document from his office, agreed to withdraw from official duties for two weeks as part of an agreement with Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), chairman of a Senate subcommittee on nuclear regulation.
The agreement resolved a confrontation that erupted Wednesday when Roberts refused to answer questions from Breaux about the apparent leak from Roberts' office of a document about the Waterford nuclear plant to its operator, Louisiana Power & Light Co.
Advantage for Firm
The document concerned safety problems at Waterford. NRC investigators have told Congress that the leak gave Louisiana Power & Light a tremendous advantage in warding off a subsequent NRC safety probe at the plant, which is near New Orleans.
Roberts initially told Congress that he had destroyed all NRC investigatory documents about the leak, but he announced several weeks later that he had found them.
In refusing to answer Breaux's questions, Roberts invoked the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to legal counsel, noting that the Louisiana Power & Light incident was under investigation by the Justice Department.
But Breaux challenged Roberts' decision, saying his position was inappropriate for a sitting NRC commissioner who was answerable to Congress for all official matters.
Breaux said Roberts could not argue that he was legally unable to answer questions from Congress at the same time that he continued to participate in NRC decision-making, including matters affecting Louisiana Power & Light.
Breaux summoned Roberts back to Capitol Hill on Thursday with his lawyer, and after several hours behind closed doors, Roberts announced his agreement with Breaux.
Under the agreement, Roberts agreed to withdraw from NRC decision-making for two weeks in exchange for Breaux's willingness to give him time to prepare his responses rather than proceed with a contempt citation immediately.
Breaux said Roberts' decision to temporarily withdraw from NRC activities was necessary to ensure continued congressional and public confidence in the agency.